3:17 pm Jun. 22, 20121
The plot lines over the first two months of the Red Bulls' season have included the re-emergence of Kenny Cooper as a legitimate star, the unexpected production from young goalkeeper Ryan Meara and an injury-riddled back line, and the team's success even without Thierry Henry on the field.
But it's all getting to a critical point now, with the Red Bulls set to take on DC United Sunday at Red Bull Arena in a nationally televised match with significant implications for the standings.
The already sold-out match offers the Red Bulls, currently in third place in the Eastern Conference, a chance to draw even with first place DC United while holding a game in hand. They'll also do so at far closer to full strength than they have been this week, during which they lost an embarrassing 3-1 decision to Chicago, then salvaged a 1-1 draw at Vancouver.
Thierry Henry is expected to return, giving the Red Bulls a full complement of a strike force alongside Kenny Cooper. Rafa Marquez, the embattled but talented midfielder, will also return. And Wilman Conde, arguably the team's best defender, is expected to play Sunday after getting rested Wednesday night in Vancouver. The only key contributor lkely to miss the match is Dane Richards, whose yellow card on Wednesday earned him a suspension for Sunday's match.
The match also features a fascinating duel between Dwayne De Rosario, the Red-Bull-turned-DC-United midfielder, and Dax McCarty, who the Red Bulls received in return for De Rosario.
The consensus at the time was that the Red Bulls did not receive full value for De Rosario, who went on to win the league's M.V.P. award with DC United, while McCarty struggled to find his proper place with New York. But McCarty has been a revelation in defensive midfield this year, and it is frankly hard to imagine a more important player for the Red Bulls, with the exception of Henry.
De Rosario, meanwhile, has kept on featuring as the engine for the DC United attack, which is tops in M.L.S. with 29 goals. He's been a large part of DC United's four-game winning streak, helping to make DC United the hottest team in M.L.S. right now.
But the Red Bulls can counter DC United's claim on the Eastern Conference with a win. Ahead of two more challenging road games, it is precisely what they need to stay close in both the conference race, along with the Supporters' Shield for best overall record in M.L.S.
A rivalry game with playoff implications and star power in prime time? This is almost certainly exactly what the Red Bulls had in mind when they signed Henry, and N.B.C. when they signed up for televising M.L.S.