Red Bulls are rolling, Sporting KC is reeling

[MLS PLAYOFF PREVIEW] Sporting Kansas City starts off defense of its 2013 MLS Cup title Thursday night in perilous circumstances.

By losing to New York, 2-0, Sunday at Sporting Park, SKC dropped into fifth place. To start its quest to repeat it gets a rematch with the Red Bulls Thursday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2) at Red Bull Arena in the Eastern Conference wild-card game.

“This was one of the more enjoyable games since I’ve been a coach, because you put a game plan out and you watch it executed, it’s a fun thing,” said Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke after Sunday’s win that improved New York’s mark against SKC head-to-head this season to 2-0-1. “That’s not always the case, but these guys were disciplined, they did exactly what we wanted to do and I’m happy for them. We didn’t celebrate like we won anything. It’s just a good thing now we can go home and have a home game.”

The Red Bulls are rolling, and SKC is reeling. New York finished the season with a 4-2-1 flurry; Sunday’s defeat was the seventh loss in the last 10 league matches for the defending champion. In a Concacaf Champions League defeat to Saprissa last Thursday, midfielder Benny Feilhaber and defender Igor Juliao departed with injuries and neither played against the Red Bulls.

“We still feel we're one of the best teams in the league,” said defender Matt Besler on Sunday night. “We've been through a lot of experiences. We've gotten knocked out of the playoffs. We've been knocked out at home. We've won cups. We've played in Champions League. We feel like we have a lot of experience.”

Also sitting out Sunday’s game with an inflamed Achilles tendon was Thierry Henry, who scored against SKC in a 2-1 victory Sept. 8 and also set up Bradley Wright-Phillips’ goal when the teams tied 1-1 at Sporting Park in May. Henry, who has yet to declare if he will return to the team and MLS next season, led the Red Bulls this season by assisting on 14 goals and he also notched 10. Midfielders Eric Alexander and Lloyd Sam each have nine assists.

By contrast, SKC’s primary attackers other than Dom Dwyer (22 goals) haven’t produced consistently. Graham Zusi (five goals, eight assists) and Feilhaber (four goals, six assists) will need to raise their games to get opportunities. Miscommunication and errors in the back line have been costly this year; on Sunday, a scuffed clearance by Kevin Ellis set up New York’s first goal, and Wright-Phillips overpowered Aurelien Collin one-v-one to bag the second to wind up tied for the league’s single-season scoring record of 27 goals

"It's what we have right now,” said SKC midfielder Paulo Nagamura after Sunday's loss. “We cannot make any excuse. We have to deal with who we have in our group now. It's a short turnaround, only four days, but we're playing the team we just played, and the guys are going to come back with a different energy and mentality, I believe.”

Feilhaber (sprained right ankle) and Juliao (strained left hamstring) traveled with SKC Wednesday, and their availability won’t be known until a few hours before kickoff.

New York is 10-4-3 at Red Bull Arena this season but strangely has never won a home playoff game there. It is 0-4-0 in the playoffs since the facility opened in 2010. But this year’s squad is confident of ending that drought.

“The tone is set with us being here, straight away,” said attacker Tim Cahill. “It’s great to play in our stadium, but the same intensity has to be in this game.”


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