Luis Robles on Philadelphia’s intensity: “We have to match it and if we match it and put the game on our terms, it bodes well for us.” (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
So, which Red Bulls’ team will show up for its MLS Eastern Conference semifinal encounter with the Philadelphia Union Sunday?
Will it be the squad that has struggled on defense, especially in key matches? Or will it be the side that has demonstrated that it can rise to the occasion?
Those questions will be answered at Talen Energy Stadium Sunday at 3 p.m. when the teams tussle (FS1).
The third-seeded Union (16-11-7, 55 points) are the favorites over the No. 6 Red Bulls (14-14-6, 48), who grasped at being consistent for most of the Major League Soccer season.
In fact, they were consistently inconsistent.
The results don’t lie.
The Red Bulls dropped three consecutive games as they were outscored by New York City FC, Colorado and Seattle by an 8-3 margin. They found themselves with a 2-0-1 streak in which they didn’t give up a goal. And then in their regular-season finale against a Montreal Impact team that did not make the postseason, the Red Bulls fell 3-0 on the road.
But this is a new season, a time for redemption. The Red Bulls are not one of the favorites to reach MLS Cup Nov. 10, a unique position they are in after winning the Supporters Shield in three of the past five seasons. They can make fans and observers forget their previous 34 league matches with a win.
Last year they were favorites to win it all. This year they are underdogs.
Still, head coach Chris Armas is optimistic that through all the trials and tribulations, the Red Bulls are stronger for it.
“We feel like we’re a much different team in a much different place,” he said earlier this week at the Red Bulls Training facility in Hanover, N.J. “We know that we’ve had challenges here that mostly every single team has faced. Some have made the cut, some haven’t made the cut and we feel like we’ve been put to the test as a team, like really tested in a lot of ways.
“For that, we stronger for it and only adversity can do that to you. Otherwise you’re just talking about when tough moments come. But we really feel like we’ve had to ask tough questions to ourselves as staff, to tactics, to our style of play, how can you evolve things, how can individuals be better. We’ve really taken hard looks and I think that’s probably, it’s the way to grow. So, we feel like we’re a different team, a better team and more equipped to go after this.”
The Union, of course, will have a say in that.
“We know what to expect — a very good team has been well coached all season long that is going to bring the right mentality and physicality to the game,” Red Bulls captain and goalkeeper Luis Robles said. “We have to match it and if we match it and put the game on our terms, it bodes well for us.”
The teams split their season series with each side winning once.
Philadelphia overcame a two-goal deficit en route to a 3-2 comeback victory at home June 8. Ilsinho, who replaced Brendan Aaronson in the 53rd minute, caused all sorts of havoc. He set up Jamiro Montero for a goal on the hour before striking for two himself in the 61st and 72nd minutes. The Brazilian is expected to be a reserve Sunday but could make a late impact.
The Red Bulls registered a 2-0 home triumph Sept. 22 as Tom Barlow tallied in the 32nd minute and Daniel Royer added an insurance score six minutes into added time.
“Look at both of our games,” Armas said. “They were different games, but we felt really good about the second game. Even in there we clear one off the goal line. It’s tight, it’s always tight with them. At their place, we’re 2-0 up on the road playing against probably the first-place team at the time.
“They’re a top team and we’ll have to be at our best, but we’ll make sure we go after it in the right way with the right plan and the right mentality with a lot of respect for Philly.”
The Union scored 58 goals, tied for second in the conference.
“They got guys on the move,” center back Tim Parker said. “Their forward movement is very good, not just with [Kacper] Przybylko but with [Fabrice-Jean] Picault on the outside and then you got [Alejandro] Bedoya running through. So, we just have to keep track of runners and communicate pretty well in the back line.”
Communication has been a problem on the backline, something the Red Bulls need to correct if they want to survive and play another day in October.
One wildcard could be forward Brian White. He returned to the Starting XI for the first time since Aug. 17 in the Red Bulls’ regular-season finale against Montreal. New York was 10-4-4 with White in the starting lineup and 3-5-1 when wasn’t on the 18-man roster. In his first full MLS season, the Flemington, N.J. native recorded nine goals and two assists in 19 matches.
Regardless who prevails, the stakes will be higher and the challenge greater as the winner will play at defending champion Atlanta United in the Eastern Conference semifinal Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Atlanta defeated the New England Revolution in a first-round encounter Saturday, 1-0.