A perfect storm of soccer story lines will converge at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey tonight as the Union face the New York Red Bulls (8PM/ESPN2).
Playoff spots, playoff positioning, a suspended superstar, a heated regional rivalry, and ESPN's cameras combine to make this must watch TV.
Oh, and the plot is thickened considerably thanks to the potential 1,000 Union fans who are making the trip up I-95. No, that’s not a typo. Early indications are that between 750-1,000 Union supporters will be there tonight.
Quick tangent - it's phenomenal for the league that so many Union fans are traveling to the game. I want to say it was Sir Alex Ferguson who pointed out during one of Manchester United's trips to the U.S. that one of the challenges MLS faces is the sheer size of the United States.
What did he mean by that? If you're a Tottenham fan living in London, you can hop on a train to Manchester to see Spurs play Manchester United, at Old Trafford, in about two hours. That's the case pretty much across the board in the Premier League. It's easy to travel to away games.
Here? Not so much. I don’t know too many fans who are willing or able to travel from Philly to Portland to see the Union play the Timbers. A regional rivalry is one of the great things about sports. The league and the game need these sort of rivalries to thrive, which makes the fact that an estimated 1,000 Union fans are going to wreak havoc tonight all the more fantastic.
Ok, tangent over.
So, what's on the line tonight? Win, and the Red Bulls are in. Lose, and New York will need some help. You know there's nothing Union fans would like more than to deliver a near-fatal blow to New York's playoff chances.
The Union clinched a playoff spot by virtue of their tie with Toronto on Saturday. They can take a step towards clinching first place in the East with a win.
The second step towards clinching the East is contingent upon what happens with Sporting Kansas City on Saturday. If the Union win tonight, and SKC ties or loses on Saturday against D.C. United, then the Union win the East.
If the two teams end up tied in points then the first tie-breaker is goal differential (both teams have a +9 differential right now), followed by total goals scored (SKY has scored 49 goals to the Union’s 44).
Ok, so the actual on the field stuff? Right. Red Bulls leading scorer Thierry Henry will miss the game due to a red card suspension. New York will obviously miss Henry, but they boast a number of other dangerous goal scoring threats.
Luke Rodgers has scored 9 goals, Joel Lindpere has 7, Dane Richards 6, and Juan Agudelo, who will likely start in place of Henry, also has 6. NYRB is tied with SKC for second in MLS in goals for with 49 (Seattle is first with 53).
On the flipside, New York is vulnerable defensively. Look no further than the game these two teams played earlier in the season when New York center back Tim Ream played an atrocious ball right to Union forward Danny Mwanga. Mwanga simply found and fed Roger Torres the ball for the only goal of the game.
Between Ream's shakiness, and Rafa Marquez' complaining about the quality of his teammates, the NY back line is a bit of a mess right now.
Another Red Bull weakness is their inability to defend set pieces. The Red Bulls have conceded 10 goals from corner kicks this season, most in MLS. Sixteen of the 44 goals allowed by the Red Bulls have come directly from set pieces, also the most in the league.
The Union simply need to continue what they've been doing. They are unbeaten over the their last eight. They welcomed Faryd Mondragon back into the lineup Saturday against Toronto. Aside from Veljko Paunovic, who is nursing a hamstring injury, they are healthy. Things are coming together at the right time.
Aside from perhaps protecting Sebastien Le Toux down the stretch of this game, I cannot imagine Peter Nowak changes much in terms of his approach. Make no mistake, the Union want to win this game. The fact remains that they can still finish anywhere from first to fourth in the East.
They desperately want to avoid falling the fourth, where they'd be forced to play a wildcard playoff game against a Western Conference opponent.
Yeah, so there's a lot on the line tonight.
Lineup I'd Like to See Tonight: Mondragon, Gabriel Farfan, Danny Califf, Carlos Valdes, Sheanon Williams, Brian Carroll, Amobi Okugo, Freddy Adu, Michael Farfan Sebastien Le Toux, Danny Mwanga.
Final Score Prediction: I am basing my prediction on nothing other than the fact New York seems to be a cursed organization. They've been in MLS since its inception, and have failed to win a trophy (be it an MLS Cup, or a US Open Cup). If something can go wrong, it will. With that in mind, I like a goal at the death by 75th minute substitute Jack McInerney to crush the Red Bulls playoff chances. Union win it 2-1.
The Toni Stahl Memorial Player Most Likely to See Red: I am going with a big fan N/A tonight. If anything, I'll predict Luke Rodgers gets sent off, if for no other reason than karma's a bitch.