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New York Red Bulls vs Toronto FC: What to watch for

Three keys as the first-place Reds head down to New Jersey, a place that’s never been kind to them.

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Toronto FC Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard not to pick Toronto FC in any game they play right now, but away to New York Red Bulls might be the one fixture they don’t want. The Reds will travel to Harrison, New Jersey on Friday to take on the Red Bulls, hoping to extend their six-game winning streak.

NYRB are sixth in the Eastern Conference, having lost three games in a row. They fell 3-1 at home last weekend to the LA Galaxy.

That said, they’ll be anything but an easy out for TFC. The Red Bulls have a lot of talented MLS veterans, including Sacha Kljestan and Bradley Wright-Phillips. The first of three things to watch out for this week will explain why I’ll probably never bet on TFC at Red Bull Arena.

1. Hostile ground

Red Bull Arena has never been kind to Toronto. In fact, they’ve never had much success against New York, but this particular fixture has always been a tough one for the Reds. TFC are 2-10-1 all-time on the road against NYRB, with many a thrashing handed down in New Jersey.

The more long-suffering TFC fans will remember the ‘Massacre at the Meadowlands’ on the last day of the 2009 season. The Reds needed a win against the last-place Red Bulls to clinch their first-ever playoff spot, but folded spectacularly to lose 5-0.

NYRB actually snapped a 19-game home unbeaten streak last weekend, so it’s not just Toronto that’s struggled at RBA.

Winning in Harrison has always been a tall order for TFC. That said, they pulled it off just last year – Sebastian Giovinco and Marky Delgado both scored in the last 10 minutes to beat the Supporters’ Shield holders on opening day.

The Red Bulls are far from their former unbeatable selves right now. They’re in terrible form, losing at home to the also-struggling Galaxy. This week, they’ll either be extra motivated to turn things around, or they might be more troubled than we think.

2. Attack wide

One thing that could seriously benefit TFC this week is the Red Bulls’ tendency to bunch up in the middle on defence. Going forward, they like to attack down the wings, but it seems like when they give up possession they fall back to their central spine of Tyler Adams, Aaron Long, Felipe and the rest of their midfield column.

That’s good news for Toronto. The Reds have been very successful attacking down the flanks this year, especially against the narrow Orlando City lineup. If they can get the ball out to whichever of Justin Morrow, Raheem Edwards and Steven Beitashour is playing on the wing, they’ll probably cause a lot of trouble for the collapsing NYRB midfield.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Philadelphia Union Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Going the other way, the Red Bulls play with a lot more width, which TFC’s defence will be well-equipped for. The back three, supported by the wing-backs, has been very good at defending that kind of play this year. I’d probably favour Morrow over Edwards in the wide role for that reason, though, as his experience and natural defensive ability probably make him better suited to stopping wide attacks. That’s why I suggested Edwards play up top in my lineup prediction for this week.

3. Rested but injured

TFC had the increasingly rare luxury of a week off after their win against Minnesota, meaning they probably won’t have to worry about resting players on Friday. They’ve got a Canadian Championship tie with Ottawa Fury next Tuesday, but the MLS game easily takes priority. Expect Greg Vanney to field the strongest team available to him.

That said, the strongest team available isn’t the same as TFC’s best possible starting XI. Giovinco and Nick Hagglund are both, in my opinion, locks to start when healthy. Fortunately, squad depth has carried them through this six-game winning streak, and it should give them a fighting chance on Friday. Drew Moor is back, meaning the Reds will still have two thirds of their best back line fit.

Moor’s return will give a significant boost to TFC’s efforts to stop Kljestan and Wright-Phillips. Few players in MLS are capable of that, but Toronto’s top defender might be one of them.

TFC have lots of options at forward to replace Giovinco, too, with Tosaint Ricketts, Jordan Hamilton, Ben Spencer, and (please!) Edwards all in the mix to partner with Jozy Altidore.

Fortunately, all TFC’s first-choice midfielders are fit. In fact, the five-man central combo I picked for this week is probably the best midfield in Toronto FC history. If any squad can beat TFC’s perennial bogey team, it’ll probably be this one.

A three-point lead in the Supporters’ Shield race can do a lot for a team’s confidence, even at a venue that would normally scare them.