Back in the postseason for the first time since reaching the MLS Cup in 2008, the Eastern Conference champion New York Red Bulls don’t want to make this playoff appearance a brief one.
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Stopping San Jose Earthquake midfielder Chris Wondolowski could help the injury-plagued Red Bulls make another postseason run.
New York and San Jose open the first leg of their Eastern Conference semifinal series Saturday night at Buck Shaw Stadium, where the Earthquakes will play their first postseason game since winning the Supporters’ Shield in 2005.
MLS runner-up in 2008, New York endured the franchise’s worst season last year by going 5-19-6 with a league-low 21 points. The Red Bulls, though, made a league-record 10-win improvement this season under first-year coach Hans Backe. New York (15-9-6) finished one point ahead of Columbus in the East with 51.
"It’s phenomenal," Backe said. "Normally, we don’t see any team in the world double its points from one year to the next. It’s just impossible."
The Red Bulls, however, aren’t overconfident heading into the opener of this home-and-home, aggregate-goal series. New York will be without Thierry Henry, who will miss his third straight game with a right knee strain. The club’s second designated player, who signed in July, could return for Thursday’s matchup at Red Bull Arena.
"We’ll try again with the ball next week," Backe told MLS’ official website of Henry, who scored his first MLS goal in a 2-0 home win over San Jose on Aug. 28. "It’ll still be day by day."
Red Bulls striker Salou Ibrahim and rookie midfielder Tony Tchani, who are both nursing hamstring injuries, will also miss Saturday’s game.
Still, New York has plenty of firepower with Rafa Marquez, midfielder Dane Richards (goal and assist Aug. 28), midfielder Joel Lindpere and captain Juan Pablo Angel, who had a team-high 13 goals despite not getting a shot on net in the last two games.
"We don’t want to disappoint ourselves," said Angel, who will likely be making his final playoff run with New York after stating earlier this season he doesn’t expect to be re-signed. "We’ve got to be at our best from the beginning."
Earthquakes coach Frank Yallop is confident his club will be ready, even though it enters the playoffs following last Saturday’s 4-1 loss in Kansas City. It was the most goals allowed by San Jose (13-10-7) since a 4-1 road defeat to New York on May 8, 2009.
"(Saturday’s loss) won’t be a factor in this series at all," said Yallop, whose team finished sixth in the West to earn its first playoff spot since returning to MLS in 2008 following a two-year absence.
The play of Wondolowski will likely be a major factor. The 27-year-old MVP finalist won the Golden Boot with his 18th goal last Saturday, and he has scored San Jose’s last 10 goals – a league record.
The last Earthquake to score at Buck Shaw Stadium other than Wondolowski was rookie defender Ike Opara in a 1-all draw with D.C. on July 3.
"We’re not just going to focus on Wondolowski … we know its not a one-man show," said Red Bulls defender Tim Ream, a rookie of the year finalist.
In the teams’ last matchup in San Jose on May 8, Wondolowski, Joey Gjertsen, Bobby Burling and Ryan Johnson found the back of the net in a 4-0 victory. Johnson also had two assists.
Jon Busch, who has the fourth-best goals-against average in playoff history at 0.81, will start for San Jose, while New York’s Bouna Coundoul makes his first postseason start.