For tension and emotion, perhaps not soccer, the rivalry between D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls did not disappoint in Saturday’s playoff opener at R.F.K. Stadium. A 1-1 result in that game has set the stage for a dramatic series finale Wednesday at Red Bull Arena.
In the regular season the two teams combined for 14 goals in three games, but in game one of their Eastern Conference semifinal United and the Red Bulls had to rely on own goals to secure a point. The game was also marked by Chris Pontius’ missed penalty kick and a red card to United defender Andy Najar.
“We have no fear of going up to New York and playing them there,” said United president Kevin Payne. “We lost 3-2 to them this year. We played very poorly in the first half of that game, but we absolutely dominated them in the second half of that game. There is no question in the minds of anybody in this room that we can go up to New York and win the game.”
It will be difficult. The Red Bulls have been a hard side to figure out. Their second leading scorer Kenny Cooper did not play in the first match. It’s an example of the unpredictability of a team filled with quality that failed to win consecutive matches over the last two months of the season.
“We’ve been strong at home – we just only lost one game this season against Kansas City, otherwise we’ve been winning most of the games,” said Red Bulls’ head coach Hans Backe. “But I mean, it’s the playoffs now and it’ll probably be almost the same type of game, very even. It can end up the same way and go to penalty or shootout, whatever it is. But it will be tight.”
Confidence is clearly not in short supply in the Black and Red camp. With Saturday’s result United, although disappointed to not snare three points, is now unbeaten in its last eight games. That eight game run has come without Dwayne De Rosario because of a knee injury and now Najar’s red card will force more change.
“The way he (Najar) can attack from the right fullback position, he’s a threat all day long, so they of course will miss him,” Backe said. “It will help us for our defense, definitely, so we can look into that. Attacking-wise, I’m not sure, but definitely defensively.”
Although it has not been announced by head coach Ben Olsen, Robbie Russell is the likely choice to fill-in for Najar at right back. In 14 of his 16 starts this season, Russell played at right back. Russell’s season was derailed in mid-July by a foot injury. Russell, who won a title with Real Salt Lake, would give United much-needed playoff experience if he is called on.
“Every playoff team you play on is unique,” noted Russell. “This team is the epitome of team. On any given night someone else has stepped up for us big. I am looking forward to see who steps up big for us this coming game.”
In attack Lionard Pajoy has become more of a force for United and provided essential goals in a win over Philadelphia and a tie with Chicago in the regular season finale. Twice in the final seven games of the regular season Lewis Neal came off the bench to score game-winners. Branko Boskovic and Hamdi Salihi have also come off the bench to score and deliver three points to United.
“We have to match their intensity up there and we’ve got to play offensively up there like we did down here,” said Pontius.”It’s a ninety minute game out there and it would be even sweeter to take it from them at their home field.”