HANOVER, N.J. — Once the calendar turned to August, the New York Red Bulls have played nothing but “big games.”
It started with a home match against Toronto FC August 3, followed by a nationally-televised showdown with LAFC at Banc of California Stadium, a home game against the New England Revolution and back-to-back of Rivalry Week contests at D.C. United and New York City FC.
That’s a pair of Eastern Conference six-pointers, a pair of rivalry games and a high-profile matchup between last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners and the runaway leaders for this year.
The Red Bulls close out the month at home Saturday night against the Colorado Rapids.
One of these things is not like the other.
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as a trap game for us,” midfielder Sean Davis said. “We understand the importance of all these games, and especially with how close the race is in the east, this is a massive game. And we understand that, we know it’s not going to be easy.”
For Davis, it’s less about the Rapids’ record, a paltry 7-14-6, which is tied with the Vancouver Whitecaps for last in the West. There’s the new coach factor with Robin Fraser making his debut in charge of Colorado. And then there’s Tim Howard’s final game in his home state against his first professional club.
The Rapids will bring plenty of emotion, but will the Red Bulls?
“I think we’ve learned our lesson that you’re only as good as that game,” Red Bulls coach Chris Armas said. “It’s a big opportunity at home. It won’t take much, but it’s not to create anxiety. It’s to understand the reality. We’re going to Seattle, we’re going to Portland after this game. We have six games left, three are home, three away. Every game is important.”
A year ago, the Red Bulls went unbeaten in their last six games of the regular season, including five consecutive victories to bypass Atlanta United at the finish line to win a third Supporters’ Shield title in six years.
Another strong finish this season could be the difference between a first-round home game and battling on the road in the playoffs.
The Red Bulls enter Saturday’s game fourth place in the East, two points ahead of D.C. United with a game in hand and three points in front of the Revolution, who own a game in hand. There’s already a six-point gap between third-place NYCFC, which have played two fewer games than their Hudson River Derby foes.
“We talked about it as a group and I think everybody was on the same page,” midfielder Danny Royer said. “We always have a strong belief in this team. And when you think back to last year, where we had a very good end of the season, where we, down the stretch, won so many games in a row, that gives us belief that, there’s a tough schedule and everything, but we’ve still got the power and the energy and the team spirit that we’re able to do it.”
The Red Bulls haven’t won more than two consecutive games all season. Thirteen teams have had longer winning streaks with 11 currently in playoff positions. The Portland Timbers and Houston Dynamo are the exception.
In that stretch of big August games, the Red Bulls went 2-2-1.
“We want to head into the playoffs in good form. And we want to really put all the experiences that we’ve had this year to good use,” Davis said. “We want to come in with lessons learned and we want to do well in these games in preparation for the playoffs. We want to be in good team form with momentum on our side. That will help us in a number of ways, which includes having a home [playoff] game.”