By Sean Hartnett
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The Red Bulls can move a step closer to clinching a playoff berth with a victory against FC Dallas on Saturday night.
With nine regular season games remaining, New York will need to begin creating distance between itself and the rest of the postseason-hopeful pack.
Currently, the fifth-place Red Bulls (12-10-3, 39 points) sit three points ahead of Atlanta FC and the Montreal Impact. While Atlanta and Montreal are even on points, Atlanta has a game in hand over the Red Bulls and Impact.
FC Dallas enters Saturday’s match on a six-game winless streak and will be forced to field a weakened starting XI. Midfielders Kellyn Acosta and Carlos Gruezo, defenders Matt Hedges and Maynor Figueroa, and forward Tesho Akindele are all away on international duty. Additionally, midfielder Mauro Diaz is questionable due to a hamstring injury.
The Red Bulls’ backline will be shorthanded. Defender Aurelien Collin remains out due to plantar fasciitis. Kemar Lawrence, Michael Murillo and Fidel Escobar are away on international duty. Midfielder Daniel Royer continues to be sidelined due to a knee injury.
GOAL THREATS: Although Red Bulls striker Bradley Wright-Phillips has dropped out of the top five in the Golden Boot race, he is always a dangerous man if given a sliver of space to operate. The Englishman, who has twice led the league in goals, has recorded 14 in 24 league matches.
Dallas’ Maximiliano Urruti has netted 12 goals in 23 league appearances. The 26-year-old Argentine was linked to a move back to the Argentine Primera Division, but his MLS club turned down offers from San Lorenzo.
PLAYMAKERS TO WATCH: Dallas’ Michael Barrios and the Red Bulls’ Sacha Kljestan are tied for second in MLS with 12 assists.
New York should be able to escape Toyota Stadium with three points. FC Dallas has shown a tendency to lose concentration in late-game situations and leak goals. Given the hosts’ key absences, Wright-Phillips should be able to recapture his goal-scoring form.
September will be a challenging month for the Red Bulls. They will play seven games in 28 days. Five of those matches will be on the road and five will be against Eastern Conference opponents. Those factors make it all the more vital for New York to begin the month on the right track.
U.S., COSTA RICA SET FOR WORLD CUP QUALIFIER AT RED BULL ARENA
The Harrison, New Jersey stadium will host a pivotal match Friday as the Americans continue their quest to book a spot in the 2018 World Cup.
Costa Rica has become a genuine rival. Matches between the Americans and “Los Ticos” have been filled with bad blood and drama. While it’s not quite on the level of USA-Mexico, it has certainly reached a boiling point. The Americans will be eager to avenge last November’s 4-0 defeat under Jurgen Klinsmann’s watch.
Successor Bruce Arena built back the belief and the swagger that resulted in Gold Cup glory and the Americans are unbeaten in 2017. Wonderkid Christian Pulisic has continued a rocket-like rise on the international stage and has grown into one of Borussia Dortmund’s integral attackers at the club level. His celebrity has reached the point that ESPN’s streaming service will offer an isolated “Pulisic Cam” during Friday’s match.
Arena has plenty of rich options up front with Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey expected to lead the line. Gold Cup hero Jordan Morris has been short on goals for the Seattle Sounders, scoring just three in 22 MLS matches, but when put in a group with Altidore, Dempsey, Bobby Wood and Chris Wondolowski the Americans have a lot of weapons. Costa Rica goaltender Keylor Navas may be one of the world’s best, but he’ll have to be on his toes.
The Americans will be missing backline regulars John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin due to injury. Arena has a wealth of options to fill in for Brooks, who will miss three months due to a thigh injury. Graham Zusi will fill in at right back while Yedlin recovers from a hamstring injury.
Through six World Cup qualifying matches, the third-place United States (2-2-2, 8 points) only leads fourth-place Panama by a point. Falling backwards is not acceptable and a fourth-place finish would mean an inter-confederation playoff spot instead of the automatic qualification gained by a top-three finish.
Arena has chosen an experienced roster. A total of 12 players on the USMNT roster have made 10 or more FIFA World Cup Qualifying appearances: Dempsey (39), Altidore (38), Tim Howard (36), Michael Bradley (35), DaMarcus Beasley (34), Geoff Cameron (22), Zusi (18), Fabian Johnson (16), Omar Gonzalez (15), Brad Guzan (14), and Matt Besler (11).
A victory over Costa Rica will go a long way toward calming the nerves of American soccer supporters. Locking down World Cup qualification on Sept. 5 in Honduras would then be a possibility, albeit a remote one. A realistic point total of 15 or 16 should be enough to seal qualification.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey