The theme for the Red Bulls this postseason has been putting “ghosts to rest” as head coach Mike Petke put it. They have the chance to put another one way Sunday with a matchup against the New England Revolution in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Finals.

This will be the fourth time the two franchises will meet in postseason play and the Revolution have won the previous three playoff series (2003, 2005, 2007). That might not seem like a good omen, but here’s something that Red Bulls fans can take to heart: New York faced a similar situation heading into its Semifinals series against DC United and managed to pull off the upset against all the odds.

Scouting the Revolution

As good as the Revs’ record was during the regular season (17-13-4), New England’s play has actually gotten better over the past few weeks. The Revolution finished the season with a 9-1-2 record and rolled through the Columbus Crew in their series with a 7-3 aggregate victory.

New England will be expected to line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, the same type of system the Red Bulls have been using successfully the past few weeks. Coach Jay Heaps’ team strength is in the midfield, led by newly-minted US International Lee Nguyen. Playing in the “No. 10” role or central attacking midfield position has given the 28-year-old free reign this season and he racked up a career-high 18 goals. No other Revs player even tallied in double digits and the Red Bulls will be aware of the threat Nguyen provides.

The Revolution’s other main component in the midfield is another US International, Jermaine Jones. A star for the Red, White and Blue at this year’s World Cup, Jones is a robust battler in the center of the pitch and in charge of breaking up opposing teams’ attacks. He’s not afraid to put in a heavy challenge and was one of the main reasons New England went on a late-season surge.

“Since Jermaine Jones arrived, he changed the team,” Red Bulls captain Thierry Henry said in a conference call Thursday. “[He] allows everyone to go up the pitch more, he’s a guy that’s going to try to stop the play. He’s a guy that wants the ball and he’s a guy that will get into it. And therefore, Lee Nguyen started to be better.”

Previous Matchups This Season

  • June 8 – The Red Bulls end a 12-year losing streak in New England with a 2-0 win over the Revolution just before the World Cup break. Goals from Eric Alexander and Peguy Luylindula and a 10-save effort from Luis Robles allowed New York leave Gillette Stadium with three points.

Steve Cangialosi and Shep Messing analyze all of the action from the Red Bulls' 2-0 win over the New England Revolution.

Aug. 2 – Despite being down to 10 men after Matt Miazga‘s first-half red card, the Red Bulls storm back in the second half behind goals from Dax McCarty and Bradley Wright-Phillips, as New York beats New England, 2-1.

Keys to a Red Bulls Victory

  • Follow the Script From the Last Series

A 2-0 first-leg victory was the perfect result for the Red Bulls in their last series against DC United and it would set them up well for the second leg if they can reproduce that scoreline. New England is a different team away from Gillette Stadium – the Revs’ road-goal differential was a minus-9 – and protecting home field is paramount to any two-legged tie.

A significant victory in the first leg could also ease fears about risking Henry on the unforgiving FieldTurf surface in Foxboro. Henry has never played a game in New England since he debuted in MLS and a big win at home could allow Petke to start Henry on the bench in the second leg.

Above all else, the Red Bulls’ best chance to advance to the Final is keeping a clean sheet. We saw how the away-goals rule came into effect in the second leg of the DC United series and how just one goal away essentially ended the tie. Another shutout would go a long way in sealing a place in the Final.

  • Win the Battle in Center Midfield

This is a lot easier said than done when you’re facing quality players such as Nguyen and Jones, but it’s test that McCarty, Alexander and Peguy Luyindula will no doubt be relishing. The key is for McCarty and Alexander – the Red Bulls’ two holding midfielders – to find a way to shackle Nguyen and keep him contained. Stop Nguyen and you basically stop the Revs’ vaunted attack.

At the other end of the pitch, Luyindula must continue his exploits from DC United series. The Revolution will be keying on Henry and Bradley Wright-Phillips, so it may come down to Luyindula chipping in with a timely goal again.

  • No Fear of Foxboro

Before this season’s 2-0 win on Aug. 2, the Red Bulls had not won at Gillette Stadium since June 29, 2002. With that laid to rest, New York can go into this tie with full confidence that it can get a result on enemy turf. This series may come down to a single goal either way and the Red Bulls now know that they can compete in New England … and win.