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When D.C. United embarrassed the New York Red Bulls earlier this season at RFK Stadium, it seemed like it might be a trend throughout the season, but it wound up being the only time in three meetings D.C. got the better of the Red Bulls.
New York managed a far better result than that 4-1 loss in April the next time they visited RFK Stadium, posting a 1-1 draw in August. That match should offer a much better measure of just how these teams stack up as they prepare to face off in the Eastern Conference semifinals, with the first leg set for Saturday at RFK.
D.C. United enters riding a strong run of form, having finished the season with a seven-match unbeaten streak (5-0-2), a mark made even more impressive by the fact that it came without injured reigning MLS MVP Dwayne DeRosario. Without their attacking leader, D.C. morphed into a stronger defensive team that worked to keep matches low scoring, and produced enough goals to rack up the points and climb all the way to No. 2 in the East.
The Red Bulls aren’t on quite the same sort of wave of momentum, but they do enter with some confidence. A shake-up of the defense has led to a new back-line that finished the year with two shutouts. Rafa Marquez has partnered with Markus Holgersson, while rookie Connor Lade and veteran Heath Pearce man the fullback slots. That quartet will look to shut down D.C. United’s dangerous flank play, and keep Chris Pontius from adding to the five goals he has scored against the Red Bulls this season.
Here is a breakdown of the Eastern Conference semifinal series:
D.C. UNITED vs. NEW YORK RED BULLS
First leg at RFK Stadium: Saturday, 8 p.m., NBC Sports
Second leg at Red Bull Arena: Wednesday, 8 p.m., NBC Sports
SEASON SERIES: The two rivals finished even in the season series at 1-1-1. D.C. United won, 4-1, at home on April 22, the Red Bulls took a 3-2 victory at Red Bull Arena on June 24 and the two teams tied, 2-2, at RFK Stadium on August 29.
KEY PLAYERS – UNITED: M/F Chris Pontius, M Nick DeLeon, GK Bill Hamid, D Brandon McDonald RED BULLS: F Thierry Henry, F Kenny Cooper, M Dax McCarty, D Rafa Marquez
MATCH-UP TO WATCH- Nick DeLeon vs. Heath Pearce. DeLeon’s energy on the wing is key both to the D.C. attack and to the team’s strong defense. Pearce will be busy trying to contain the rookie standout, but he will also need to get forward to keep DeLeon honest.
OUTLOOK – D.C. United has ridden stingy defense, outstanding goalkeeping, and some opportunistic finish to a nice unbeaten streak to finish the season, but the Red Bulls also come in confident after closing the year with consecutive shutouts. News of a Tim Cahill injury is a big blow for the Red Bulls, but moving Dax McCarty back into central midfield may not be such a bad thing. D.C. United has received some good news, with Dwayne DeRosario listed as questionable for Saturday’s opening match.While it seems unlikely that he would start, DeRosario could give D.C. United a dangerous weapon off the bench.
PREDICTION – D.C. United punished the Red Bulls defense earlier this season, with Chris Pontius finding success against New York’s slow central defense. Look for Pontius to try and punish the tandem of Markus Holgersson and Rafa Marquez. For the Red Bulls, Thierry Henry is starting to find a good rhythm, and as long as Cooper finishes the chances Henry sets up, the Red Bulls have a very strong chance of pulling out the victory.
D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid is the kind of goalkeeper who, when he is on his game, can shut anyone down. If he finds that zone against the Red Bulls, United should win the series. Without that though, we’ll give the edge to New York. The switch in venues for the two legs give the Red Bulls the home edge in the second leg. Look for them to take advantage of that and overcome a first-leg 1-0 loss with a 3-1 victory at Red Bull Arena for a 3-2 aggregate victory.
How do you see the D.C. United-Red Bulls series playing out? Think DeLeon gets the better of Pearce? See Henry and Cooper finding success against D.C. United’s stingy defense?
Share your thoughts below.