Sunday night's match between Sporting Kansas City and the New York Red Bulls will mark the start of a three-match season series that could very well decide who will finish atop the Eastern Conference in 2012.
Sporting currently hold a narrow two point lead (46 points) over the Red Bulls (44 pts) for first place in the East, and with two more matches between the clubs to be played at Red Bull Arena later in the season, coming away with points tomorrow will be huge for the home side.
I had a chance to ask Dan Ferris, managing editor of the SB Nation Red Bulls blog "Once A Metro," a few questions about New York's season, and how a couple of the club's more high-profile acquisitions are fitting into one of the most talented teams in Major League Soccer.
As always, a big thank you to Dan for taking the time to share his thoughts.
1. How do you feel Sebastien Le Toux and Tim Cahill have fit into the Red Bulls' squad? Where has Red Bulls manager Hans Backe chosen to play Le Toux and Cahill on the pitch thus far?
Dan Ferris- Le Toux and Cahill both seem to be finding their place, albeit not as quickly as some would like, especially in regards to Le Toux. Manager Hans Backe clearly prefers to have both in the starting lineup, but whether it's growing pains or not, the Red Bulls have had some real forgettable performances the past few weeks. And the new arrivals have led to Kenny Cooper, Major League Soccer's second leading goal scorer, losing his starting spot up top along with Thierry Henry.
Cahill has played in a forward-moving central midfield role, and despite not being fully match fit has made an impact with a goal and an assist already in his short tenure with the team. He plays above Dax McCarty, who is having an outstanding year, and Sunday's match against SKC could be a real showcase of their ability to control the center of the field against a formidable opponent.
Le Toux has had less impact so far, being generally ineffective as a forward and even less so when moved to the right midfield to allow for Kenny Cooper to try and repair whatever damage was caused without him on the field. Backe's biggest challenge down the stretch will be finding the most effective starting eleven while giving meaningful minutes to Le Toux and another newcomer, right winger Lloyd Sam, to work them into the mix for a playoff run at MLS cup.
2. Can you tell us a little bit about what kind of formation Backe likes to utilize and maybe name a few players that have been key to the Red Bulls' success so far this season and why these players have been so integral in New York's success?
Dan Ferris- New York plays in an aggressive 4-1-3-2 system that demands that everyone pull their weight and provide cover as defenders move forward, otherwise the backline is left wide open and susceptible to leaking goals, as we've seen in a handful of matches, typically on the road. There have been so many injuries to the team, particularly defensively, that it's hard to pinpoint just a player or two who have made the largest impact. To me, however, it's clear that Dax McCarty has been the unsung hero of the season. He may not have the most goals or assists, but he's an essential fifth defender as well as a sixth attacker who never appears to lose steam getting forward or tracking back. Also, Kenny Cooper and Thierry Henry, who are 2nd and 4th in the league in goals scored, combining for an impressive 25 goals through 25 games. Less recognizable players who deserve mention are first year Red Bulls Connor Lade and Brandon Barklage - hopefully KC fans will get a good first-hand look at what they can bring to the field on Sunday.
3. I'm interested to hear your thoughts on why this Red Bulls team is having much more success than the New York team of last season. A lot of the same players. Same head coach. How has Hans Backe managed to right the ship?
Dan Ferris- Better depth and versatility. While a lot of the names are the same - Henry, McCarty, Marquez (despite doing little for the club all season), and Lindpere - New York has brought in four starting-caliber defenders in Heath Pearce, Wilman Conde, Brandon Barklage, and Marcus Holgersson, as well as the huge addition of Kenny Cooper. Part of this is luck, few predicted how effective rookie Connor Lade would be, or that Barklage would be able to win the starting right back job from Jan Gunnar Solli. But also, many of these new players are able to fill a number of different positions when called upon due to injury, suspension, or simply better match ups.
Another big difference this year has been solid, consistent goalkeeping. Rookie Ryan Meara did a phenomenal job between the sticks before picking up a nagging hip injury that requires surgery. Fellow newcomer Bill Gaudette has stepped in and challenged for the permanent starting job if he hasn't already won it outright. Really, the Red Bulls front office deserves a lot of credit after some previous critical blunders. They have brought in guys who are willing to fight for and earn their spots in training week in and week out while reducing the number of players that miss games due to national team call-ups. It also doesn't hurt that MLS isn't scheduling matches during the key FIFA international dates!
4. Prediction for the match?
Dan Ferris- New York pulls off a hard fought 2-2 draw, with both goals scored by Kenny Cooper