By Sean Hartnett
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Saturday’s meeting between the Red Bulls and Chicago Fire will be a “six-pointer” in the truest sense of the term.
The Red Bulls, who sit in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, enter the weekend four points behind the third-place Fire with a game in hand.
New York (12-10-4) will visit Toyota Park with a chance to earn a vital three points on the road and thus steal points from a rival in the heat of the stretch run. Victory would at least temporarily propel the Red Bulls into fourth place above the Columbus Crew and within a point of the Fire.
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Red Bulls supporters will be keeping a close eye on the Crew’s match against Sporting Kanas City on Sunday. Currently, Columbus has played two more games than New York.
It’s possible that any combination of New York, Chicago and Columbus could meet in the knockout round of the MLS Cup Playoffs. The third- and sixth-place finishers, as well as the teams that finish in fourth and fifth, respectively, will vie for the right to advance to the conference semifinals.
Chicago has been a dominant side on its home turf, going 10-2-1, while New York is just 4-8-1 on the road. When the sides met on April 29 at Red Bull Arena, former Red Bull Dax McCarty notched an assist in his return to his old stomping grounds. However, Kemar Lawrence secured three points for the hosts by netting the eventual winning goal in the 71st minute.
New York will be missing a key man in midfield, but another is closing in on a return to game action. While Sean Davis is suspended due to card accumulation, there’s a possibility that Daniel Royer will be given the green light. Royer has missed four consecutive games with a hyperextended knee and bone bruising. Once he returns, the influential Austrian will take pressure off Bradley Wright-Phillips and add a dynamic element to the Red Bulls’ attack.
On Tuesday, Royer took part in individual work with team trainers. That’s a major positive as the Red Bulls clearly can use his eye for goal and ability to link play in the final third.
GOAL THREATS: Saturday’s match will feature two leading scorers searching to rediscover their best form.
Wright-Phillips picked up an assist in last weekend’s 2-2 draw at Dallas, but only recorded one shot before being taken out in the 87th minute. Though without a goal in his last two league appearances, the 32-year-old Englishman has scored five times in the last six games. Wright-Phillips has captured the Golden Boot, awarded to the player who leads MLS in goals, in two of the last three seasons.
Aside from Wright-Phillips and Royer (10 goals), goals have been hard to come by for the Red Bulls. Winger Alex Muyl is the team’s third-leading scorer with just three goals in his 24 appearances.
Chicago’s Nemanja Nikolic is currently tied for second place in the Boot race with 16 goals in 27 appearances, trailing only NYCFC star David Villa (19 goals in 25 appearances). Oddly, the goals have dried up lately for the 29-year-old Hungary international. Nikolic hasn’t gotten on the scoresheet since July 1, when he netted a brace against Vancouver.
When at his best, what makes the former Legia Warsaw ace dangerous is his strong hold-up play, movement without the ball and instinctive poaching. Forward David Accam has chipped in 14 goals, but it’s unclear if he will feature. The 26-year-old Ghana international is recovering from an ankle injury and it’s too early to say if he’ll be available.
PLAYMAKERS TO WATCH: Red Bull creative midfielder Sacha Kljestan’s 13 assists trail only Toronto FC’s Victor Vazquez and New England’s Lee Nguyen, who each have 14. Lawrence and Felipe have each recorded five assists for New York.
Accam leads Chicago with seven assists, one more than former Germany captain Bastian Schweinsteiger. While Schweinsteiger is known primarily for his non-stop midfielder motor, ability to read the game and his array of passing, he scored the winning goal against Montreal last weekend. He is questionable for Saturday after picking up a late knock.
Should Accam and Schweinsteiger miss the match, the Fire will be without their two best playmakers. That would be a big boost for the Red Bulls, who have defenders Lawrence, Fidel Escobar and Michael Amir Murillo available for selection after returning from international duty.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey