BULLS RUN: A RIVALRY RENEWED

It’s a rivalry as old as Major League Soccer itself: New York vs. D.C. United.

Whether the New York soccer franchise has been known as the MetroStars or the Red Bulls, there has always been an extra feeling of enmity towards D.C. United. Now, the two rivals meet again in the postseason, with hostilities renewing Sunday in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals at Red Bull Arena. (Live coverage gets under way at 3:30 PM on MSG).

This will be the fifth time the teams have met in the postseason and the Red Bulls will be looking to record their first series win over D.C. United. This year’s Eastern Conference regular season winners have never lost a playoff series to New York in the four previous meetings – 1996, 2004, 2006 and 2012. The results in the regular season this year also went D.C. United’s way, with the Black-and-Reds winning two out of the three matchups.

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But this might be the year the Red Bulls lay old demons to rest. After all, they hadn’t won a playoff game at Red Bull Arena until Thursday’s dramatic 2-1 win over Sporting Kansas City. Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke hopes that the good karma generated from that victory over SKC carries over to Sunday’s game.

“Over the last couple of years, I’ve been saying I don’t believe in any curses or jinxes or anything like that,” he said after Thursday’s win. “But I thought maybe we were just scared of the playoffs. But [the players] proved that wrong, and now they’re happy in the locker room, exhausted, and now it’s on to DC.”

“Over the last couple of years, I’ve been saying I don’t believe in any curses or jinxes or anything like that,” he said after Thursday’s win. “But I thought maybe we were just scared of the playoffs. But [the players] proved that wrong, and now they’re happy in the locker room, exhausted, and now it’s on to DC.”

SCOUTING REPORT: D.C. UNITED

The Black-and-Reds had one of its best seasons in franchise history, completing a worst-to-first turnaround. After tallying just 16 points in 2013, DC United took the Eastern Conference regular season crown with 59 points.

Ironically, the D.C. United attack is powered by a former Red Bull striker. Fabian Espindola had a somewhat uneven 2013 season in New York and had his position in the first XI usurped by Bradley Wright-Philips. Espindola moved to the nation’s capital for the 2014 season to earn a starting place and has arguably been D.C. United’s MVP this season. The Argentine striker tallied 11 goals – tied for the team lead – and also had nine assists.

And while the Red Bulls relied upon Wright-Phillips’ goal production, DC United’s goal scoring was spread throughout the team. Luis Sliva also scored 11 goals for United and former US International Eddie Johnson chipped in with seven.

But what really drove DC United’s success this season was its defense. Goalie Bill Hamid was tied for the fewest goals allowed this season in MLS, surrendering just 37. Hamid was particularly stellar this season in between the posts this year, recording 10 shutouts.

RED BULLS KEYS TO VICTORY:

Use the Home-Field Advantage

It sounds pretty obvious, but it’s imperative for the Red Bulls to get a winning result at home Sunday. D.C. United’s road performance was somewhat mediocre (6-4-7), but its form at RFK Stadium was one of the best in the league (11-4-2). It makes Sunday’s game all that more important as New York would face an uphill battle if tied or behind going into the second leg.

Keep The Ball and Keep it Tight

The Red Bulls played Thursday in the play-in game, while DC United comes in fully rested and can go all out in trying to press and harass the Red Bulls into mistakes. It’s crucial for New York to keep possession of the ball and not give it away cheaply in transition. The less energy spent chasing after the ball, the better of a chance the Red Bulls will have to get a result.

With the away goals rule in effect, it’s doubly important for New York to keep the ball out of its net Sunday. If the two teams are tied after the two legs, the tiebreaker is the team that has scored more away goals. That could come into play with two clubs that normally play close matches.

Who’s Down With BWP and Henry?

Thirty-seven of the Red Bulls’ 55 goals this season came from either Wright-Phillips or Thierry Henry. While both men will be expected to score, it would also help New York’s chances greatly if they get goals from other areas. This is as a good a time as any for Tim Cahill to rediscover his goalscoring form from midfield and a trademark header from the Australian is exactly what New York needs in order to pull off the upset.