MLS Knockout Round: Red Bulls paired against ex-talisman

Forces greater than Dax McCarty will decide whether the Red Bulls or Fire advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals when they meet Wednesday (Fox Sports 1, UniMas, 8:30 pm. ET), but the Fire-y midfielder going up against his old mates sure makes for fun anticipation.

Red Bulls fans shocked at the news last January that McCarty had been traded to Chicago perhaps conveniently forgot that he and midfield maestro Sacha Kljestan took a lot of the heat for NYRB’s playoff elimination by Montreal. It took some time for head coach Jesse Marsch to rejigger his system and get back a semblance of the high-pressure, bold bunch that topped the Eastern Conference a year ago.

This year, the Red Bulls compiled only seven fewer points (50 vs. 57) than they did last year but finished five spots lower. And in neither season were they great on the road: 5-10-2 in 2017, 3-7-7 last year. But they beat the Fire, 2-1, at Red Bull Arena in late April and earned a 1-1 tie at Toyota Park Sept. 9.

In that latter match, MLS goal king Nemanja Nikolic broke out of a two-month slump and -regained his touch to reach 24 goals, the same number Bradley Wright-Phillips collected last year. BWP’s production dipped to 17 this season but he scored in both games against the Fire.

The return to form of Daniel Royer (12 goals in 2017, including two in his last three games) and signs of life from Gonzalo Veron (two goals as a starter and two as a sub in the last six games) give the Red Bulls enough firepower to probably bag at least one goal.

However, Nikolic also scored in both head-to-head meetings -- set up by a McCarty assist in late April -- and he’s notched six in the last four games. The attack has suffered a bit recently because of injuries to Bastian Schweinsteiger, Michael de Leeuw, and David Accam, and so it’s not clear how head coach Veljko Paunovic will select and align his front six. DeLeeuw is out with a ruptured ACL, Schweinsteiger has been bothered by a thigh injury and made his last start Sept. 2.

One advantage for the Red Bulls is in goal, where Luis Robles has a vast edge over Matt Lampson in experience and accomplishments. As the lower seed on the road the Red Bulls technically will be underdogs, but their fans still expect atonement for past playoff failures caused by glitches such as a penalty kick Kljestan failed to convert against the Impact. They are still shy of expectations.

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