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Confident NY Red Bulls face Philadelphia Union in battle of inconsistent rivals

The winner advances to take on Atlanta United in the Eastern Conference semifinals Thursday at Mercedes Benz Stadium

Jun 8, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Union defender Jack Elliott (3) and New York Red Bulls forward Brian White (42) battle for the ball during the first half at Talen Energy Stadium. (Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

HANOVER, N.J. — The New York Red Bulls were maddeningly inconsistent this season, highlighted by the club’s stretch drive. It consisted of three consecutive defeats that had some in the South Ward calling for coach Chris Armas to get fired, followed by three clean sheets in a row and capped by a flat 3-0 Decision Day defeat in Montreal.

As a result, the Red Bulls went from having a puncher’s chance at hosting a first round playoff game to No. 6 in the East and being forced to go on the road Sunday to play the Philadelphia Union. The winner then meets defending MLS Cup champion Atlanta United midweek.

For the first time in several seasons, the Red Bulls aren’t mentioned among the favorites to win MLS Cup. And that, they say, is fine with them.

“It’s exciting,” defender Tim Parker said. “For us to go on the road, underdogs in this situation, I think for us we’re all looking forward to that opportunity and looking forward to coming out of there with a win.”

Does form carry over from the regular season into the playoffs? Toronto FC and Atlanta United’s MLS Cup runs the last two years seem to indicate that it does.

But here’s where it gets interesting. The Union’s form at the end of the regular season — three losses, a win and a draw in their last five matches — wasn’t very good either. Philadelphia had a chance to claim the top spot in the East and earn a first round bye, but squandered that with a loss to an already-eliminated Columbus Crew.

“We’ve got a great group of guys, and the spirit is a really good one,” Red Bull’s goalkeeper and captain Luis Robles said. “And we’re hoping that we leverage that going into this game. If we bring the right mentality, we bring the right physicality, we put the game on our terms, then I don’t care who we play, I like our chances.”

This is the 32nd all-time meeting between the Red Bulls and Union, but first in the MLS Cup playoffs. The Red Bulls have the all-time edge at 15-9-7 with the teams splitting a pair of results this year, each holding serve at home.

While there are a few questions about starting lineups because of injuries, there’s little else unknown between the respectful rivals.

“I think Jim would probably think the same, we know what this game is gonna look like,” Armas said of Union coach Jim Curtin, a former teammate on the Chicago Fire. “It’s going to be two teams that want to win and advance. But we also know then it becomes so much about the little things, the little things that go into that.”

Maybe the Red Bulls’ two regular season games against the Union are a true microcosm of their topsy-turvy season.

They were flying and in control with a two-goal lead, only to suffer a second-half collapse courtesy of a vintage substitute performance by Ilsinho and fall 3-2 at Talen Energy Stadium in June.

At Red Bull Arena in late September, the Red Bulls rolled to a 2-0 win. Their defense didn’t concede many opportunities, Kaku was a creative force in midfield and they were opportunistic in the attacking third.

Who shows up Sunday? Who knows, but Robles touts a “quiet confidence” among a group that, for the first time in a long time, is bereft of outside expectations.

“Philadelphia is a great place to play. It’s close to us, so there’s the rivalry element, there’s the fan element. We’re going to have a huge group of supporters out there, and last time we actually played in Philadelphia it had a playoff feel to it,” Robles said. “It’s a place we’re very familiar with. I don’t think anyone in this group is intimidated or anxious about the game. It’s a familiar opponent and a familiar place, and we felt really good about it.”

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