3:20 pm Aug. 3, 2012
The Red Bulls are in first place in the Eastern Conference.
They have added Tim Cahill, a third designated player and desperately needed central attacking midfielder, to their roster. Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper have been productive, and the back line has been largely effective throughout the season with a mix of imports (Markus Holgersson, Wilman Conde), homegrown talent (Connor Lade), and scrap heap pickups (Brandon Barklage).
They are, in short, in unprecedentedly good shape at this point in the season.
How it goes from here will have a lot to do with how the Red Bulls perform tonight, in Houston against the second-place Dynamo, and next Friday night, when they host Houston in a return engagement.
The Red Bulls are one of two M.L.S. teams to be undefeated at home; the Dynamo are the other. Both teams are mediocre, at best, on the road. So earning the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and home field throughout the playoffs, is big.
Houston also may represent the single biggest challenge to New York's efforts in the Eastern Conference generally. The Dynamo are tied with Sporting Kansas City, one point behind the Red Bulls. But while Kansas City is 3-4-3 over its last 10 games, Houston is 6-1-3. And the Dynamo are adding U.S. international midfielder Ricardo Clark to the mix, only adding to the team's strength.
The Red Bulls, continuing a season-long pattern, are not at full strength. Dax McCarty, who has been fantastic at holding midfielder, is out due to accumulated yellow cards. Goalkeeper Ryan Meara, Barklage and disappointing Rafa Márquez have all been ruled out. Heath Pearce, Teemu Tainio and Cahill will dress, but the recovery from injuries from the first two and the need to get into game shape for Cahill will limit the minutes for all three.
The Red Bulls have several months to get healthy and play together before it really matters. If they beat Houston, there's a good chance they'll have the advantage of playing at home, too.