New York Red Bulls vs. DC United: Keys That Will Shape MLS Conference Semifinal
The latest chapter in the storied rivalry between the New York Red Bulls and D.C. United will see the two sides collide in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The last time the Atlantic Cup rivals played each other in the postseason was 2012, when the Black and Red won a famous, snow-infused series 2-1 on aggregate.
Snow is not in the forecast for Sunday's first leg at Red Bull Arena, but a spirited affair between two of the oldest clubs in the league is in the cards.
Here is a look at the key issues that will shape Sunday's match at the home of the Red Bulls.
Mike Petke's Usage of Peguy Luyindula
New York manager Mike Petke altered the course of his side's knockout round win over Sporting Kansas City by bringing on Peguy Luyindula in the 65th minute.
Luyindula shifted into the attacking midfield position occupied by Tim Cahill, while the Australian drifted further back to replace the departed Eric Alexander.
Although he may not receive a ton of credit for his efforts, Luyindula played a key role in setting up both goals in the 2-1 win.
He started the move on the first goal by knocking a pass out to Thierry Henry, who then found Bradley Wright-Phillips in the box.
On the second strike by Wright-Phillips, it was Luyindula who played the ball out to Ambroise Oyongo on the right wing to once again kickstart the attack.
If Sunday's match is tight throughout the first half, expect Petke to deploy Luyindula into the attack again to work his magic.
Thierry Henry on Short Rest
Thierry Henry was ineffective (by his standards) for most of the knockout round match Thursday, but he sprung to life in the 77th minute to provide Wright-Phillips with an assist.
The 37-year-old Frenchman is still a dynamic playmaker in the final third, but he entered the clash against Sporting Kansas City with inflammation in both of his Achilles.
Henry missed the final regular-season game against Sporting KC to rest his knocks, but he won't have the luxury of doing that during the playoffs.
The Red Bulls forward will enter the first leg of the semifinal on three days rest, which may not be enough for his old legs.
There should be no doubt with regards to his starting position, but his impact on the match could be hindered if his injuries begin to act up.
Domination by Home Teams
All three of the regular-season meetings between these two Eastern Conference foes were won by the home side. Additionally, each of those three matches saw the hosts earn a clean sheet.
Two of the three matches ended 1-0 (and both of those saw the losing side force only three shots on goal). The only game in which the visiting side managed to be a consistent threat on goal was August 31 at RFK Stadium.
In that match, New York had five shots on goal, but D.C. 'keeper Bill Hamid was there to deny the visitors on every occasion.
If form holds in the postseason, we could see the Red Bulls take a lead—albeit a potentially slim one—into the second leg on November 8.
How Will United's Defensive Duo Contain Bradley Wright-Phillips?
Following his brace Thursday night at home, Wright-Phillips now has 29 goals in 2014. When he scores, Wright-Phillips usually takes advantage of marking errors from the opposing defense.
He was able to find a hole in the box with the attention paid to Henry on the first goal, while he was wide open after a positioning error by Sporting KC goalkeeper Eric Kronberg allowed him to score his second.
The Golden Boot winner will go up against the stout D.C. pair of Bobby Boswell and Steve Birnbaum in the next round. The pairing of a league veteran and the second-overall pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft have combined well throughout the regular season.
Boswell and Birnbaum must keep a close eye on Wright-Phillips during every second of the match—a task that could prove difficult, considering there are so many attacking threats on the field for New York.
If the center-back pairing can deny Wright-Phillips (who doesn't have a goal against United this season) any clear-cut opportunities in front of goal, they should leave Red Bull Arena with a favorable result.
Influence of Perry Kitchen in the Midfield
Perry Kitchen is one of many young Americans who will have an impact on the final results in the postseason.
The midfield aggressor for the Black and Red has been one of the top central midfielders in the league this season, and he is a threat on both offense and defense.
Kitchen should begin the game deeper in midfield to disrupt the rhythm of the New York attack, but he will be allowed to move forward as the match progresses.
Thanks to the presence of veteran Davy Arnaud alongside him in the middle of the park, Kitchen does have a license to go forward when the likes of Nick DeLeon, Fabian Espindola and Eddie Johnson need help. The 22-year-old has benefited from his spurts forward this season with five goals and four assists.
The one thing that Kitchen has to worry about is his discipline. He earned 11 yellow cards in 31 games, which was the second-highest total for the regular season behind Chivas USA's Oswaldo Minda.
Sean Franklin's Positioning on the Pitch
The one tactical wild card that D.C. United manager Ben Olsen has in his pocket is the positioning of Sean Franklin.
Franklin is usually employed at right-back, but on two occasions this season he has shifted forward to start on the right wing.
In the 1-0 win over Philadelphia on September 27, Franklin was effective bombing forward while Chris Korb kept watch on the Union attack from the right-back position.
The same setup showed itself the following week in the 0-0 draw at home against Sporting Kansas City.
Franklin's movement forward was more visible in those two matches, but it also gave United an extra player on the wing to shut down the wide threats of those two opponents.
Olsen may not be willing to gamble with Franklin on the right wing in a road game, but he could opt to move him forward during the latter stages of the match in an attempt to grab a late away goal.
Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.