By Sean Hartnett
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There will be a lot at stake for the Red Bulls when they take on New York City FC on Friday night in the final regular season installment of the Hudson River Derby.
For one, the visitors from the Bronx will be looking to complete a season sweep.
Expect the Red Bulls (12-10-2, 38 points) to be fresh from the jump and eager to defend their own turf, given how rested they are thanks to head coach Jesse Marsch fielding a heavily rotated starting XI during last Friday’s 2-0 defeat in Portland. Star forward Bradley-Wright Phillips did not play and playmaking midfielder Sacha Kljestan came on as a substitute in the 67th minute.
Aside from key midfielder Daniel Royer missing due to a knee injury and defender Aurelien Collin sidelined with plantar fasciitis, Marsch should be able to select his strongest starting XI for a match that has big implications for all involved.
The Red Bulls are currently in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, three points above seventh-place Atlanta United, who have a game in hand over New York and sixth-place Montreal. A Red Bulls victory on Friday would pull them even on points with third-place Chicago ahead of the Fire’s meeting with Minnesota United on Saturday.
Fortunately for the Red Bulls, in-form NYCFC midfielder Yangel Herrera is suspended for Friday’s match due to yellow card accumulation. Currently on loan from Manchester City, the 19-year-old Venezuelan has reportedly attracted interest from French side Lyon. Manchester City has thus far rebuffed Lyon’s attempts to sign him. Mikey Lopez is expected to start in Herrera’s place.
A win for NYCFC (14-7-4, 46 points) would tie the franchise record of four consecutive victories. Should the Blues leave Red Bull Arena with three points, they will remain in striking distance of the Supporters’ Shield. NYCFC currently trails first-place Toronto by seven points and has played one less game.
Discipline will be a key factor for the Red Bulls throughout the stretch run. Wright-Phillips, Kljestan, Sean Davis, and Felipe are all one yellow card away from picking up an automatic one-game suspension.
A few things to look out for in Friday’s match:
TALENTED YOUNGSTERS TO WATCH ON BOTH SIDES
NYCFC forward Jonathan Lewis and Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams have been growing into special players before our eyes.
Lewis, 20, has been providing late-game heroics and is taking on a larger role for City. His 94th minute strike against New England on Sunday was his second straight game-winning goal, joining the curling masterpiece he converted against the L.A. Galaxy on Aug. 12.
Adams, 18, has developed into a commanding, box-to-box midfielder. His greatest strength is natural fitness. Standing just 5-foot-9, Adams plays with a high motor from his first minute to his last, often racing back to support the back line and making crucial interventions. Despite only having 15 league appearances under his belt, Adams oozes poise in possession and displays an impressive passing range.
GOLDEN BOOT CANDIDATES ON DISPLAY
NYCFC forward David Villa enters Friday leading MLS with 19 goals. The reigning league MVP has remarkably scored in seven of his past eight league appearances, tallying nine goals over that span. The 35-year-old star striker recorded his first MLS hat trick in the last meeting against the Red Bulls, and his excellent form has earned him a recall to the Spanish national team for upcoming World Cup qualifiers.
Wright-Phillips has dipped to a fourth-place tie with 14 goals. He is currently the only player in league history to score 20 goals in two separate seasons. The 32-year-old Englishman has been at his clinical best of late, entering Friday’s contest on a four-game league goal-scoring streak, netting five over that span. What’s more, Wright-Phillips owns NYCFC, having scored 10 goals in eight career matches.
He has won the Golden Boot in two of the last three seasons. And given his excellent form of late and ability to score goals in bunches, it’s too early to say Wright-Phillips is out of the current Golden Boot race.
Considering the drama when these sides last met at Yankee Stadium, expect an equally captivating Act III at Red Bull Arena on Friday.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey