Wednesday August 22nd, 2007

Jozy Altidore
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
A massive week in the East
It was a magical night at the Meadowlands, one many MLS fans won't forget for a long time. But now that's exactly what the Red Bulls must do. Riding a wave of good feelings and momentum after its thrilling 5-4 victory over David Beckham's Galaxy, New York faces its most important week of the season -- back-to-back road matches against its two biggest rivals. In fact, this is Shakedown Week in the Eastern Conference: The next four days -- Wednesday night with New York at D.C. United and Chicago at Kansas City, then Saturday with New York at New England and Kansas City at Chicago -- will go a long way in determining who has the goods to challenge for the Eastern Conference regular-season crown, as well as spots in next season's SuperLiga. "I think [the L.A. match] was a performance that took a lot out of our team and it's going to be important if we can recover physically," New York coach Bruce Arena said. "I don't think we'll have a letdown on the mental side, we just have to make sure we do a good job in making sure our players recover and get them physically ready to play." For the Red Bulls, that challenge is especially daunting. D.C. enters the match having not conceded a goal in 341 league minutes and has lost to New York at RFK Stadium only twice in the past in the five seasons. Meanwhile, for surging Chicago, this week represents a golden opportunity to climb back into the East race. The Fire are 2-0-1 since Cuauhtémoc Blanco made his debut and have closed to within three points of Columbus for the final playoff slot. Indeed, like last Saturday at Giants Stadium, it's setting up to be quite a ride.
Bullish on New York?
While all the buzz around the Red Bulls has centered on the play of Jozy Altidore and Juan Pablo Ángel -- seven goals in two matches will do that -- New York still has two critical areas to address if it's going to make a deep run in the playoffs. To wit:
  • Make a change in goal. Ronald Waterreus has been a liability since his return from an early-season ankle injury. After a strong start to his MLS career, the Dutch international has not shown the lateral mobility, quickness or the decisiveness the Red Bulls need. Meanwhile, similar to last season when Tony Meola was around, Jon Conway has outplayed the No. 1 keeper. Conway's goals-against average in 11 games: 1.03 (good for second in MLS). Waterreus' in 11 games? 1.65. (15th out of 16).
  • Get consistency out of the back four. Easier said than done. The Red Bulls have used 12 different back-line formations in 20 league games. That isn't helping out the goalkeeping situation, either. Injuries, inconsistency and a couple of questionable trades -- most notably Kevin Goldthwaite for Todd Dunivant -- have forced Arena to try almost anything on defense. Carlos Mendes, arguably the team's most consistent defender, has been replaced at center back the past two matches by Seth Stammler. But don't discount how much the absence of rock-solid defensive midfielder Dema Kovalenko (who even filled in for a spell at left back) has hurt. The Red Bulls have conceded 27 goals this season, which is right in line with most of their Eastern rivals, but a questionable defense will only take you so far in the postseason. Even with Altidore and Ángel.
  • Playoff confusion
    You might not have noticed it -- there's a curious note in red letters at the bottom of the standings page on the league's official Web site -- but MLS clarified its postseason qualification process this week. MLS, in fact, is not ditching its conference setup in the postseason. But if more than four teams qualify from one conference, as the league explains it, "those finishing lower than fourth in their conference will shift over to the other conference bracket." That means, Columbus -- which currently has the eighth-most points in the league -- would, in essence, play as the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference. It won't be the 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6 and 4 vs. 5 format. Which is a shame. That eliminates the possibility of, say, a Houston-FC Dallas or a D.C. United-New York MLS Cup final. Imagine how good those rivalry matches would be with a championship on the line.
    RankLW Team
    Houston Dynamo (11-7-4)
    'El Capitán' will stay in Houston for the 2nd straight year
    FC Dallas (11-7-3)
    This two-week break couldn't have come at a better time
    New England Revolution (11-5-6)
    Held EJ and potent Wizards to just a single shot on goal
    D.C. United (10-6-3)
    Can claim Atlantic Cup (vs. N.Y.) for 5th time in 6 years
    Chivas USA (9-5-4)
    Two road wins in 23 days. Had three in all of last season
    New York Red Bulls (10-7-3)
    Becks effect: Average crowd went from 11,573 to 16,528
    Kansas City Wizards (8-7-5)
    Back-to-back losses to Revs leave K.C. 10 points adrift
    Chicago Fire (6-8-5)
    Blanco superbly opened his MLS account with this golazo
    Columbus Crew (6-7-8)
    The late-June unbeaten run feels like it was so long ago
    Colorado Rapids (6-9-6)
    Shocking wins over HOU, NE put Rapids right back in race
    Los Angeles Galaxy (3-8-5)
    Pelé didn't lead Cosmos to playoffs in his 1st year either
    Toronto FC (5-11-5)
    6 minutes away from single-season goal-scoring infamy
    Real Salt Lake (2-10-6)
    Created plenty of chances vs. Fire -- nothing would go in

    1. Altidore/Ángel
    New York Red Bulls

    2. Fred
    D.C. United

    3. Cuauhtémoc Blanco
    Chicago Fire
    Wednesday, Aug. 22
    D.C. United 2, New York 1 -- RFK has been the Red Bulls' longtime House of Horrors
    Kansas City 1, Chicago 0 -- Wizards will have to win this crucial match without Marinelli
    Thursday, Aug. 23
    Chivas USA 2, L.A. 1 (ESPN2) -- That nasty schedule is really going to start pounding L.A.
    Saturday, Aug. 25
    D.C. United 3, Toronto 1 (FSC) -- TFC's record goal drought ends, winless skid does not
    New York 1, New England 0 -- Red Bulls become the latest to steal three points in N.E.
    Chicago 3, Kansas City 2 (HDNet) -- I'm expecting a split in this home-and-home series
    Houston 2, Columbus 1 -- An ugly August ends for Columbus with a loss to the champs
    Sunday, Aug. 26
    Los Angeles 1, Colorado 0 (Galavision) -- Do the Galaxy need Xavier around or what?
    Chivas USA 3, Real Salt Lake 1 -- Goats are quietly in the race for the Supporters' Shield

    Last Week: 3-4; This season: 51-60
    Curiously, there has been a clean sheet recorded in 16 of the 18 league matches in the month of August, including two scoreless draws. The only two matches in which both teams have scored have been thrillers: FC Dallas' come-from-behind 3-2 victory over Columbus on Aug. 11 and last Saturday's Red Bulls-Galaxy 5-4 instant classic.

    SI Apps
    We've Got Apps Too
    Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.