Cahill in the crosshairs for crucial second leg

By Ridge Mahoney
Bradley Wright-Phillips out, Tim Cahill in starts just about every discussion of the Revs-Red Bulls showdown Saturday (live at 3:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN) in the Eastern Conference semifinals, and well it should.

A net loss of 29 goals -- 31 for BWP minus two by Cahill in regular-season and playoff action this year -- is monumental. Wright-Phillips has missed only two games this season: a 2-2 tie at Philadelphia Sept. 19 and a 1-1 deadlock at Chicago March 23. He came on as a sub three times and scored once, in the season-opening 4-1 loss at Vancouver that provided an early indication that perhaps the Red Bulls might not repeat their 2013 capture of the Supporters’ Shield.

But the 2014 squad has already surpassed last year’s team, and most of its predecessors in team history, by winning a playoff series. Of all the past disappointments, the 2013 fizzle is one of the most painful. After a 2-2 tie in Houston -- which followed by three days a Dynamo knockout-round dispatch of Montreal -- to open the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Red Bulls stumbled out of the playoffs, 4-3 on aggregate, by losing the home leg, 2-1.

The downing of regular-season conference winner D.C. United earlier this month, 3-2, on aggregate has spurred hope that New York’s combination of game-breakers and grit-workers can carry the day at Gillette Stadium. Yet the Red Bulls are also disadvantaged by the implementation this year of the away-goals rule, which the Revs have exploited ruthlessly in their two playoff series.

For their conference semifinals, the Revs blasted the Crew, 4-2, in Columbus and tacked on a 3-1 home victory to win, 7-3, on aggregate, the great margin of victory in postseason history since the two-game format was adopted in 2003. A 2-1 triumph at Red Bull Arena necessitates New York either reversing that scoreline to force extra time or winning the series outright by at least two goals.

Either task would be formidable enough with the speedy Englishman who tied the single-season record of 27 goals and hit four more in the playoffs. If Cahill does indeed step in as expected, the Red Bulls can exploit his prowess in the air; despite his struggles this season he’s still a formidable target to threaten the goal directly, hold the ball as teammates get into positions, or knock down serves for teammates.

One can envision Peguy Luyindula, Lloyd Sam and Thierry Henry -- all of whom have played many times with Cahill, who netted 11 goals last year -- adapting their play to mesh with Cahill’s shrewd, rugged style. Also stepping into the breach will be central midfielders Dax McCarty and Eric Alexander. McCarty scored New York’s goal when it tied the Fire without Wright-Phillips; Alexander got on the board when the Red Bulls beat the Revs, 2-0, at Gillette Stadium June 8, and for the season he tied Sam for second on the team with nine assists. (Henry led the way with 14.)

In comments to reporters on Wednesday, Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke said – without confirming that Cahill will start -- that he’ll “tweak” his tactics to fit the situation. Switching Henry to the left wing in a 4-2-3-1 formation has freed up the Frenchman to slash at defenses on the dribble or play balls into the box for Luyindula, who in the 2-2 tie with Philly sans BWP earned a penalty kick by collecting a ball from Henry and splitting two defenders to draw the foul. Luyindula converted that PK himself in place of Wright-Phillips, who nailed all six of his attempts as first choice from the spot. Henry has not taken a penalty kick this year in MLS competition.

No Wright-Phillips will mean more Henry for the Revs. That daunting prospect is tempered by how Henry will fare on the Gillette Stadium artificial turf, which he’s adamantly refused to patronize since joining the Red Bulls in 2011, and what the weather conditions will be. The Revs trained Wednesday in a steady snowfall. Snow showers and rain are forecast for Friday. Game day is expected to be clear with temperatures in the mid-30s.
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