By Sean Hartnett
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The late dramatics of last weekend’s 3-2 Hudson River Derby defeat to NYCFC shouldn’t distract from the reality that the Red Bulls (11-9-2) have been one of Major League Soccer’s hottest teams since mid-June.
Prior to their loss at Yankee Stadium, the Red Bulls had won four consecutive league matches. In all, they have earned victories in six of their last seven matches in all competitions. Next up on the schedule is a Saturday night home meeting with an Orlando City (8-9-6) team that has dropped out of playoff position and is in desperate need of positive results.
Now is the time for the Red Bulls to stamp their authority as an Eastern Conference powerhouse against a hungry team that will enter Red Bull Arena swinging with everything they’ve got. The potentially explosive scoring of Orlando’s attacking trio of Dom Dwyer, Kaka and Cyle Larin won’t be easy for the Red Bulls’ backline to contain.
At 22 years old, Larin is the youngest player in the MLS history to reach the 40-goal mark. Dwyer, recently acquired from Sporting Kansas City, has achieved breakthrough success with the United States national team, but his partnership with Larin is raw and will need time to jell. Kaka’s impeccable credentials speaks for themselves. Although the Brazilian wizard is 35 years old, he’s always capable of making the defense-splitting pass that can turn a game on its head.
While we’re talking about firepower, the Red Bulls will have to make do in the short term without prodigious midfielder Daniel Royer. The July MLS Player of the Month suffered a hyperextension of his right knee and bone bruising, the team said Tuesday. Fans held their breath when Royer collapsed and screamed in agony 12 minutes into Sunday’s match, but the injury is only expected to cause the Austrian to miss weeks rather than months. Royer has begun his first full MLS campaign with 10 goals and two assists through 22 league appearances.
Fortunately for the Red Bulls, forward Bradley Wright-Phillips has shown no sign of slowing down his blistering form. The two-time MLS Golden Boot winner netted twice Sunday. His 13 goals through 22 league appearances only trail NYCFC’s David Villa (17) and Chicago’s Nemanja Nikolic (16) in the scoring race.
Much of the 32-year-old Englishman’s success can be linked to midfielder Sacha Kljestan’s ability to slip through balls into Wright-Phillips’ path. Kljestan finished as last season’s MLS assist leader with 20 in 32 appearances. Through 21 games this season, the 31-year-old captain leads MLS with 12 assists.
The Red Bulls will host Pride Night on Saturday and Kljestan will be wearing a rainbow-colored armband in support of diversity, inclusion and LGBTQ awareness. It should be a colorful occasion in the crowd and on the pitch.
Orlando keeper Joe Bendik leads the league with 83 saves, while Red Bulls stopper Luis Robles is tied for second with 78 saves. Expect a night when both goalies are under pressure and a high-scoring affair, but the onus is on the Red Bulls to recapture their best play even though Royer will be sidelined. The best teams rise above adversity and injuries. This will be a chance for the Red Bulls to show their fortitude.
RED BULLS COMPLETE DUKA SIGNING
On Thursday, the Red Bulls signed 27-year-old midfielder Dilly Duka. A native of Montville, New Jersey, Duka had previously been on trial and under evaluation by the Red Bulls. He was waived by the Columbus Crew on July 10. Columbus will pay the remainder of his $175,000 salary.
“I’d like to thank the organization for the opportunity,” Duka said. “I’m here to give 100 percent every day, and to help contribute in any way I can. The Red Bulls organization is first class, and I see every day that every player is hungry for team success.”
Duka was a 2008 All-Big East selection at Rutgers University, where he led the Scarlet Knights in scoring. He also represented the Newark Ironbound Express in the USL Premier Development League for two seasons. The 5-foot-9 midfielder will wear No. 22.
Across eight MLS seasons, Duka has made 138 league appearances (12 goals, 14 assists) for the Crew, Chicago Fire and Montreal Impact. He’s a veteran of three playoff campaigns, two with the Crew and one with the Impact. His experience and attacking qualities should be a boost to the Red Bulls’ midfield depth.
“We are pleased to add Dilly,” head coach Jesse Marsch said. “We knew he was a talented, quality player, and he has shown well in his time here. He’s also a veteran of the league that we think improves our roster both on game day and in training. We look forward to integrating him into our team.”
As the final two months of the regular season edge closer, Marsch will have opportunities to rotate his squad and keep his starting 11 regulars fresh ahead of the playoffs. He had been part of the Red Bulls’ academy during his youth, so there is some familiarity – as Sporting Director Denis Hamlett added: “Dilly is a veteran player, and our staff is very familiar with him. We’ve been able to have him in training for a few weeks, and we’ve liked what he has shown. He brings attacking quality and experience to our roster, and we expect him to contribute moving forward.”
Any MLS team is going to need experienced cover during the stretch run, and Duka fits the bill of what is required from a depth signing.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey