By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns
In the wake of Wednesday’s crushing loss in the U.S. Open Cup final, the Red Bulls’ attention has immediately turned toward solidifying their position in Major League Soccer’s playoff race.
The Red Bulls currently hold the final spot in the Eastern Conference with six matches remaining. They’ll look to break a five-game winless streak in league play (0-4-1) when they take on the Columbus Crew on the road on Saturday.
New York kicking its season into gear has been long overdue. Its last MLS victory came on Aug. 12 at home against Orlando City. Should the defeats continue to pile up, the Red Bulls will be hard-pressed to hold off seventh-place Montreal.
The Red Bulls have a three-point cushion over the Impact and have a game in hand. If the playoffs started today, New York would travel to Chicago in the knockout round.
Make no mistake, the next six matches will be closely watched and scrutinized by everyone.
Making matters worse, Columbus has made Mapfre Stadium a fortress this season, going 10-3-2. For the Red Bulls to turn things around, it will have to start with defense. The significance of the Cup final and the imposing digs in Kansas City appeared to rattle head coach Jesse Marsch’s players on Wednesday. This team’s habitual mental lapses, ballwatching and positional gaffes must end immediately.
As Marsch noted, desire wasn’t the Red Bulls’ problem on Wednesday against Sporting Kansas City.
“The outcome is obviously heartbreaking, but the performance is what I think we’ll carry with us,” Marsch said. “In the moment, there’s no consolation prize. But the confidence that this group has, the way that they played and the way that they played for each other, this will continue to make us good.”
But desire can only take a club so far. The Red Bulls cannot afford to keep leaving points on the table. Replicating their recent sub-optimal form over the final stretch of the regular season would likely doom them to a postseason-less autumn.
“We’ve got a big game in Columbus,” goalkeeper Ryan Meara said. “We know the teams around us have been winning. The games are coming thick and fast and we’ve got to be ready for it.”
In addition to the aforementioned desire, Red Bulls fans are literally aching to see defensive composure, strong communication, cohesion in build-up play, and an improved end product. Most of all, the club’s supporters want to see signs of progress. The last thing they want to witness is more sleepwalking on defense. Some of Columbus’ attackers are in excellent form and a repeat of Wednesday’s defensive blunders will not be acceptable.
CREW PLAYERS TO WATCH: Columbus forward Ola Kamara enters the weekend on a hot streak. The 27-year-old Norwegian has scored in four consecutive MLS matches and is now tied for fourth place in the Golden Boot race.
Gambian forward Kekuta Manneh has not been a consistent starter, but he has made the most of his infrequent minutes. Manneh’s speed and agility are difficult to contain. He was a scorer and provider last weekend at Vancouver.
Midfielder Justin Meram has chipped in 11 goals, while veteran attacker Federico Higuain has netted nine. They are tied for Columbus’ assist lead with seven.
RED BULLS PLAYERS TO WATCH: Scoring ace Bradley Wright-Phillips’ late goal in the U.S. Open Cup Final was indeed too little, too late, so he’ll be motivated to recapture his best form during the final hunt for a playoff berth. But the Red Bulls are going to need more attackers to get in the mix.
Daniel Royer hasn’t played since Aug. 6 and was held out of the U.S. Open Cup Final. Royer is still New York’s second-leading scorer despite missing six consecutive league matches. If he returns on Saturday, it will be a massive boost.
The question remains: where is all the secondary scoring? Alex Muyl is the team’s third-leading goal scorer with just three. Captain Sacha Kljestan, Gonzalo Veron and Sean Davis each have two to their name. Along with Wright-Phillips, Kljestan and Veron are designated players and, thus, are expected to be difference makers.
Wright-Phillips has established himself as one of the league’s most prolific goal-getters and the creative Kljestan has racked up at least 14 assists in each of his three seasons with the Red Bulls. Two goals and three assists from Veron through 18 appearances isn’t a satisfactory contribution. Granted, many of his appearances have come as a substitute. But given the expectations of a DP, he needs to force his way into being a starting XI automatic and impact player.
With a half-dozen matches remaining, the Red Bulls have a chance to chase after a first-round playoff bye. There isn’t much of a gap separating New York and third-place Chicago, which is six points ahead and has played one more game.
The Red Bulls can go one way or the other at this stage of the season. Their playoff destiny is in their hands.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey