Photo by Dave Janosz

Red Bulls to play first home playoff game since 2018

On Saturday, the New York Red Bulls will face FC Cincinnati in the first round of the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs. This year will be Cincinnati's first-ever appearance in the postseason, and it will also be the first playoff meeting between these Eastern Conference rivals.

However, these two teams know each other well from the regular season. The Red Bulls played Cincinnati twice during the season and both games resulted in 1-1 draws. This shows how evenly matched these clubs are and why Saturday's single-elimination playoff game at Red Bull Arena is going to be must-see playoff soccer.

Kickoff for Saturday's playoff match is scheduled for 12:00 p.m. at Red Bull Arena but first, let's discuss how the Red Bulls matchup with FC Cincinnati.

Who is FC Cincinnati?

When Major League Soccer's 2022 season had ended and the final standings were finalized, FC Cincinnati had finished fifth in the Eastern Conference, four points behind the Red Bulls, who finished in fourth. But Cincinnati would not be facing the Red Bulls in the first round if they had not ended their season red-hot by winning three of their last four regular season matches. One of the reasons Cincinnati finished the season so strongly is Brenner Souza da Silva, who had a break-out sophomore season in MLS this year, during which he scored 18 goals, which was good for third highest in the league.

That is not all that Cincy possesses. They also have an experienced, top-class striker in Brandon Vasquez who finished the regular season tied with Brenner for the FC Cincinnati team-lead in goals. Together, this duo was the first pair of teammates to score 18 goals each during a single season in MLS history. In addition to these two top strikers, Cincinnati also has playmaking midfielder, Luciano Acosta who led all MLS players with 19 assists during the regular season.

It's important to note that while the Red Bulls had a tough schedule to close out the regular season that included a 2-0 loss to the reigning MLS Cup Champion, New York City Football Club (NYCFC) in September, Cincinnati faced much weaker opponents down the stretch. This included facing two last-place teams in San Jose and D.C. United, where Brenner scored half of the 18 goals, he scored during the regular season.

This is one reason that Red Bulls' starting left-back, John Tolkin spoke confidently during a recent press conference about the belief he has that his team can go toe-to-toe with Cincinnati's dynamic offense on Saturday.

Yeah, they're kind of like a power trio up there [but,] If you look around the league, there's also other teams with tons of quality as well. So, we kind of know what they're about already. If we can shut down Acosta, that helps us out tremendously because he had the most assists this year. So, it's going to be difficult but it's nothing we haven't seen already. If we play with the right intensity and play like we know how we can play, it should be set up for us.

The Red Bulls' Recent Form

The Red Bulls finished their regular season in fourth place in the MLS Eastern Conference with 53 points. This was four points ahead of FC Cincinnati who finished in fifth, but one advantage Cincinnati has over Red Bull is their offense which scored 14 more goals as a team than Red Bull did. However, it's worth noting that if FC Cincinnati had not beaten two last-place teams during their final five games of the season by a combined score of 11-2, they would have finished with 53 goals, which would have been only three goals more than what Red Bull had this season.

Red Bulls fans should not feel like their team will be outclassed by Cincinnati on Saturday for several reasons. One of these reasons is that the Red Bulls have an attacking midfielder in Lewis Morgan who scored 14 goals during the regular season, which was the seventh highest in the league. They also have good attacking players in Luquinhas and Patryk Klimala who were tied for second on the team with five goals apiece.

The Red Bulls also have a strong backline that is anchored by a powerful center back duo of Aaron Long and Sean Nealis and they have a goalkeeper in Carlos Coronel, who finished the season with eight clean sheets, which was tied for the sixth-most in MLS this season. Coronel also finished his season with a shutout performance against Charlotte FC in the Red Bulls' regular-season finale.

Then there is Elias Manoel, the striker who joined the Red Bulls on loan from the Brazilian Serie A in August and has since emerged as a starting eleven player. In the season finale, Manoel scored his first two goals in a New York Red Bull uniform.

The head coach of the New York Red Bulls, Gerhard Struber discussed why Manoel's recent performance is a good sign for his club heading into Saturday's win-or-go home playoff game.

Strikers live only for goal-scoring moments. Elias showed us that in the last game, in a very good way. It’s very important to have strikers who are ready to score, [who] have the right mental set-up and the quality to realize it and with Elias we have a striker who can do that.

On yet another positive note, Red Bulls defensive midfielder, Dru Yearwood's three-game suspension is over, and he will be available for Saturday. However, the bad news for Red Bull heading into Saturday's playoff game is that Cristian Casseres Jr., who led the Red Bulls in assists this season, will miss Saturday's playoff game due to an injury.

Struber understands the challenge that Saturday's match poses for his team but believes that they are ready to handle the challenge.

The boys are ready. I can feel the focus, the concentration in this game is growing, especially in training yesterday. We prepared the boys in this direction and of course we have to find a top connection between us and our fans. The fans must feel this from the first second that we go to our limit in every direction. I expect from my boys that everyone is ready to leave everything on the field on Saturday. This is what I expect, it is what the fans expect from us that we leave everything on the field. We know [Cincinnati] have outstanding power in the attacking area, but we also remember [that] we can handle power against us and especially the game in Montreal showed us that.

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Anthony graduated from Montclair State University, where he covered a variety of sports for three years. He co-hosts a sports-themed radio show on campus radio station, WMSC 90.3 FM, which was recently named #1 college radio station in the nation.