Red Bulls-Union Preview
A pair of clubs looking to move beyond their past postseason failures collide in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs Sunday when the Philadelphia Union host the New York Red Bulls.
The Union (16-11-7), who led the East for lengthy periods in 2019 before a late-season swoon dropped them to third, have never won a playoff match in franchise history. Philadelphia was swept in both legs in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2011 by Houston and suffered knockout-round losses to Toronto FC in 2016 and New York City FC last year.
"I'm not going to say we've reached any goal or accomplished anything yet, but we've moved certainly forward and our record over the past couple years has shown that," Union manager Jim Curtin said.
"We're very satisfied with what we've done this year, we're proud of it, we broke a few in-house records, but we know it's not enough," Fafa Picault added. "We don't want to keep a medium mentality and just settle for average."
One area where the Union have been above average is in attack, where they racked up 58 goals. Striker Kacper Przybylko led Philadelphia with 15 goals, and eight different players had at least four. Przybylko has been well-served by midfielders Alejandro Bedoya, Haris Medunjanin, and Jamiro Monteiro, who combined for 23 assists.
"It's playoffs man, this is a whole different level, the intensity of the game," Bedoya told the league's official website. "The LAFC game at home, that felt like a playoff intensity type of game, so that's what we need to do. We need to match that type of intensity.
"We take their first five-, 10-, 15-minute punches we'll be fine. We just can't concede a stupid early goal like we did against New York City and in past games."
New York (14-14-6) enters this postseason sixth, a steep fall-off from last year in which it won the MLS Supporters' Shield as the top team in the league. That was their third Supporters' Shield in six years, but none of those seasons ended in the MLS Cup final let alone winning it.
The Red Bulls have only reached the final once - in 2008 - and coach Chris Armas knows there are high expectations despite being considered the underdogs as they make the short trek down I-95 to Talen Energy Center.
"No one - Bruce (Arena), Bob Bradley - they've all come through, we're all trying to get that trophy for this club. These are some of the greatest. Jesse? Yes. Haven't done it," Armas told the MLS official website. "C'mon, I'm trying here and we're making progress and we've been pushed and we're going after it this year. We're going after it big time."
Red Bulls keeper Luis Robles, who recorded one of his nine clean sheets on the season in a 2-0 victory over Philadelphia on Sept. 22, thinks the matchup favors his side as New York frustrated the Union throughout the contest while getting goals from Daniel Barlow and Daniel Royer.
"It's a game in the playoffs where there's a lot on the line that can fuel a rivalry," Robles said. "Everyone in our locker room, we know what to expect - a very good team that's been well-coached all season long, that is going to bring the right mentality and physicality to the game. And we have to match it. And if we match it and put the game on our terms, it bodes well for us."
Royer led the team with 11 goals, while Brian White was the only other Red Bulls player with more than five goals, netting eight. The Red Bulls are 10-4-5 when White has played this season, and he started the season finale after missing nearly two months with a sprained ankle.
The Union won the other game between the teams, rallying for a 3-2 victory after Ilsinho entered as a substitute in the 53rd minute. He set up a goal by Monteiro before scoring in the 61st and 72nd minutes.
The winner of this match will play the winner of the Atlanta United-New England match Thursday.
Updated October 19, 2019