DOWN THE STRETCH THEY COME

With just seven games left in the Red Bulls’ regular season, the team enters a crucial stretch of matches that will decide whether it will be Eastern Conference champions or fall short of its goals.

New York currently sits in third place in the standings, four points behind conference leaders Sporting KC and three points behind the Chicago Fire. While passing two teams might seem daunting, the Red Bulls have a significant advantage over their rivals: the schedule.

Beginning with their clash Saturday against the Columbus Crew (7 p.m. on MSG), the Bulls have five matches at home, including two against Sporting KC and one against the Fire. With a 9-0-3 record at Red Bull Arena this season, coach Hans Backe likes his team’s chances heading into those big games.

“Everytime you play at home and you play teams two or three points behind, you need to pick up points,” Backe said at practice Thursday. “It’s a big week for us now, we play three games at home, we’ve been unbeaten at home. I hope we can stay like that and perform and pick up points.”

The Red Bulls also have three matches against the three bottom teams in the East — Sept. 22 against New England, Sept. 29 against Toronto and the season-finale Oct. 27 vs. Philadelphia. While no game is an assured three points, it’s certainly better than playing teams battling for a playoff spot.

Sporting Kansas City has the lead, but the hardest schedule of the three teams, with four matches away from home and five matches against teams currently in playoff positions. While Sporting is the best road team in MLS, it’s a daunting task to expect Kansas City to pick up wins on every trip.

Chicago also has a difficult schedule, with matches away to New York and Kansas City in their seven remaining matches.

The opportunity is there for the Red Bulls to win the conference. All the team has to do now is to do it on the field.

“We know every game is going to be crucial and very difficult,” Jan Gunnar Solli said. “It’s about winning the war and everybody has to contribute.”

“I’m excited because it’s all there to play for and it’s in our hands,” added Tim Cahill. “It’s up to us to do the business.”

Defensive Dilemma

According to Soccer By Ives’ Dave Martinez, Rafa Marquez is set to make his return from injury Saturday against the Crew.

“I’m very hungry to come back even though I missed many games this season,” Marquez told reporters at practice Thursday. “And I do not want to miss the final home stretch this season.”

Whatever you think of Marquez’ contribution as a Red Bull, having the Mexican as an option at center back will be something Backe will have to consider heading into this important slate of matches.

Considering New York has kept a clean sheet in just one out of its last six matches, the Red Bulls are desperately in need of some sort of defensive consistency.

But what is the Red Bulls’ best back four when everyone is healthy?

Of the Red Bulls’ center backs, Markus Holgersson has featured in the most games, starting in all 24 games he’s played this season. There’s no doubt Backe feels comfortable with Holgersson along the backline and will undoubtedly choose his fellow Swede if he’s fit.

Marquez, Heath Pearce, Wilman Conde and Tyler Ruthven have all partnered Holgersson, but the ideal fit would be Marquez. Marquez’ skills as a finesse defender is a better fit with Holgersson’s more robust form of defending.

Pearce and Conde can both play left back, but that position should belong to Connor Lade. The youngster has shown remarkable energy this season and gives the Red Bulls a noticeable lift every time he starts. Meanwhile, at right back, Brandon Barklage has just returned from injury and if the former midfielder-turned-defender can recapture his early-season form, Barklage should be inserted back into starting lineup.

What might end up happening is Backe will pick defender based on opponent. For teams that offer a physical threat, the Red Bulls’ coach will pick a center-back pairing of Holgersson and Conde. For matches that New York will dominate possession, Backe may opt for a more progressive, attack-minded backline. It’s a welcomed headache for Backe to have a wealth of options at his disposal.