By Sean Hartnett
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It has largely been a season of peaks and valleys for the Red Bulls.
They looked like a well-oiled machine during June and July, at one point reveling in a six-match winning streak across all competitions. Boosted by a U.S. Open Cup run that placed them in a showpiece final, the Red Bulls continued to look sharp through mid-August.
But an eight-game league winless drought followed their Aug. 15 victory in the Open Cup semis in Cincinnati. New York went winless for the entire month of September and lost the Cup Final to Sporting Kansas City.
The Red Bulls’ form began to turn around earlier this month. A 3-0 victory over Western Conference-leading Vancouver on Oct. 7 was a huge step forward. That was followed by a hard-earned scoreless draw against Atlanta, which is in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. The Red Bulls won 56 percent of the possession and outshot the expansion side 13-9, denied a victory only by Brad Guzan’s clutch goalkeeping.
“I thought we played great,” head coach Jesse Marsch said during the postmatch press conference. “I thought we were the better team. I thought we dominated almost every aspect of the game. It was a little bit shaky in the start, but once we cranked things up — we took over the game.”
Midfielder Tyler Adams and defender Aaron Long were named to the MLS Team of the Week on Monday. Adams was deployed as a wing back against Atlanta and added to his reputation for being versatile and an engine-like presence no matter where he plays. The 18-year-old has been excellent in transition, a tenacious box-to-box runner and composed with the ball at his feet.
Long has been central to the cause when New York has been at its stingy best. He was a commanding presence on Sunday, helping secure a clean sheet.
The Red Bulls will finish the MLS regular season against rivals D.C. United on Sunday at 4 p.m. New York is expected to heavily rotate its lineup at RFK Stadium. The Red Bulls are locked into the sixth seed in the East and are awaiting their knockout-round playoff opponent. They would be the road side in the first round.
“I think you can expect some resting of players,” Marsch said.
It’s possible for the Red Bulls to face Atlanta in the knockout round. That would be tasty matchup, especially considering Marsch’s recent disapproval of Atlanta’s roughhouse tactics.
“For two teams that like to press, we came out on top,” Marsch said. “We were able to establish our way of playing more than they were. So, I think that’s something we’ll carry with us. You just hope that from some perspective that they shouldn’t be allowed to kick us for 90 minutes. Shouldn’t be allowed to happen. Should not be allowed to happen.”
Considering the ebbs and flows of the Red Bulls’ season, it’s difficult to gauge whether this group can deliver a deep playoff run. But New York has difference-makers in goal-poacher Bradley Wright-Phillips, midfielder maestro Sacha Kljestan, a healthy Daniel Royer, Adams and a steady pair of hands between the sticks in Luis Robles.
It all depends on which version of the Red Bulls shows up.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey