By Peter Schwartz
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With three games remaining in the regular season, the Red Bulls already know that they will be in the MLS playoffs. But in the very tight Eastern Conference, the difference between getting some extra rest and facing a dangerous opening-round knockout match is extremely small.
Despite their current 13-game unbeaten streak, the Red Bulls still have some work to do.
Heading into Saturday night’s game with the rival Philadelphia Union at Red Bull Arena, the Red Bulls find themselves in a tie with NYCFC for second place in the East with 48 points, one point behind first place Toronto FC. To say it’s a big game would be an understatement and not just because it’s New York vs. Philadelphia.
“I’m not sure we’re looking at it as much as a rivalry as it is more of a playoff match,” Red Bulls defender Chris Duvall told WFAN.com. “This is a team that’s sitting in fourth right now (42 points) and we play them twice in the last three games.”
Stating the obvious, the Red Bulls would love to finish in first place, but the main objective is to finish in the top two and earn that first-round bye but that is far from a guarantee right now.
If the Red Bulls finish in third or fourth place, they’ll host a first-round knockout match, but should the unthinkable happen and they slide down to fifth or sixth, they would have to go on the road for an opening-round game. A victory on Saturday would give them three valuable points in their quest for the bye.
“The playoffs kind of start now for us,” said Duvall who assisted on Daniel Royer’s 60th minute goal in last Saturday’s 1-0 win over the Montreal Impact. “These are huge games for us and for them.”
The Red Bulls have a chance to really hurt the Union down the stretch as they also face them on the road in the regular season finale on Oct. 23. Philadelphia has not clinched a playoff spot yet and has just a one-point lead over Montreal and a two-point lead over D.C. United.
But the bottom line for the Red Bulls is to just win and ensure a direct path to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“We aim to win every game,” said Duvall, who played in college at Wake Forest. “Hopefully that will put us in a position to get that bye in the first round and maybe rest our legs a little bit while our opponent goes out there and fights for their lives.”
There were certainly a lot of smiles this week throughout the Red Bulls organization. They clinched their seventh straight playoff berth with last Saturday’s win over Montreal and on Tuesday night advanced to the knockout stage of the CONCACAF Champions League for the first time in franchise history. A scoreless tie with Antigua GFC allowed the Red Bulls to finish atop Group F and advance to a two-leg matchup against a yet-to-be-determined opponent in February 2017.
“Things are really positive at our facilities right now,” said Duvall, the Red Bulls’ second-round pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft. “They have been for a little while. Just the fact that we have more Champions League games coming up in our future that we’ve never had before, I think it’s an exciting time for us.”
The enthusiasm is there for the Red Bulls and their fans despite a 1-6 start to the season. There were also those five two-goal, second-half blown leads that turned all-but-certain victories into head-scratching ties, including a 2-2 draw in Philadelphia on July 17.
Somehow, the Red Bulls have found a way to overcome what has gone wrong this season and focus on staying hot down the stretch to make a run at the MLS Cup. They have a little unfinished business to take care of after winning the Supporters Shield last season before losing to Columbus in the Eastern Conference finals.
This season’s club has taken an alternate route to get to this point.
“It’s definitely a different team and we’ve been through different things,” Duvall said. “We’ve had some dips and some high points throughout the season, and we’ve dealt with lots of injuries. I think this one has been more about perseverance, determination and overcoming difficult times.”
It certainly looks like this Eastern Conference race could come down to the final week of the season. With one point separating the top three teams, every match and every point is critical. For the Red Bulls, NYCFC (which plays Friday night at Houston), and Toronto FC, any points squandered could be catastrophic.
“We know that all three of us have tough games going down the stretch,” Duvall said. “So if we take care of our business, we know that will solidify a spot in the top two. So everything is in our hands and we’re looking forward to that.”
From a rough start to the season to injuries that forced call-ups from RBNY II of the USL to a plethora of second half meltdowns, this has been a challenging season for the Red Bulls. But those issues just might be in the club’s rearview mirror. The Red Bulls have captain Dax McCarty back from injury, a playoff spot has been clinched, they’re in the knockout round of a major international tournament, and they haven’t lost a match since early July.
The Red Bulls just might be peaking at the right time.
Don’t forget to follow Pete on Twitter at @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @chrisduvall91 and @NewYorkRedBulls