Scouting Report: Union host in-form Red Bulls minus Henry
The New York Red Bulls are missing key players through injury and suspension, but you wouldn't know it by looking at recent results.
Hans Backe's club is currently on a three-game unbeaten streak, three 1-0 shutouts.
The brief streak started with a home win over New England. Thierry Henry scored the game-winning goal before straining his hamstring and leaving the match. Then New York blanked LA on the road and shut out Houston mid-week at home. The Red Bulls are now in second place in the Eastern Conference with 19 points and a 6-3-1 record.
The Union are 2-2-0 all-time in league play against New York. Roger Torres scored his first MLS goal in a thrilling 1-0 home win over the Red Bulls at PPL Park last season. Dane Richards' header earned New York a 1-0 win at Red Bull Arena in late October. The Union have not lost to their regional rival in two matches at PPL Park.
New York Attack
With Henry ruled out Sunday the resurgent Kenny Cooper leads the Red Bull attack. Cooper is in phenomenal form this year and looks to have found the scoring touch that eluded him in Portland last year. The former Dallas man already has eight goals this season, matching his scoring total from 34 games with the Timbers in 2011.
Backe has used a loose 4-5-1 formation with his depleted roster. With Cooper at the top of the shape, Mehdi Ballouchy and Joel Lindpere are playing centrally in the midfield. Ballouchy has been playing playing well since earning his starting role. Lindpere struggled early this season but looks much more comfortable in the middle of the park. He scored the goal that beat the Galaxy last week.
Richards has stayed on the right side of the midfield and Jan Gunnar Solli made the switch from right back to left midfield, the spot Lindpere occupied in 2011.
New York Defense
Dax McCarty is playing some of his best soccer with New York in the absence of Rafa Marquez and and Teemu Tainio. He's alone in a defensive midfield role and looks more comfortable roaming the field and distributing the ball.
Marquez is expected to return to action on Sunday. He was suspended for three games and then sat out Wednesday's match with an ankle injury. If Marquez starts at holding midfielder then McCarty likely pushes forward.
New York's backline is a patchwork group of young players and new signings, but they've impressively earned themselves three straight clean sheets.
With central defenders Wilman Conde and Stephen Keel fighting injuries, the Red Bulls paired former Harrisburg City Islander Tyler Ruthven with Markus Holgersson. Ruthven earned a contract with New York following a March trial period. Holgersson joined from Swedish side Helsingborg in the offseason and has worn the captain's armband.
Roy Miller returned to action as a substitute on Wednesday and could start again Sunday. Home Grown Player Connor Lade has filled in nicely at Miller's left back position. Former D.C. man Brandon Barklage is plugging the gap at the right fullback spot.
One of the biggest stories of the year for New York is rookie goalkeeper Ryan Meara. The 21-year-old is playing like a seasoned veteran and proving himself in a spot where New York was expected to be weak this year. Meara has some qualities similar to Union 'keeper Zac MacMath -- aggressive, quick reflexes, and box anticipation belying his age. Meara has been very good at snagging balls out of the air and he's adept at reading the game and coming off of his line in the right situations.
Keys to the Game
New York's recent wins haven't been fancy, but they show a grittiness that the Red Bulls did not have last year. They've clawed and scrapped for three straight shutouts with a group of hard-working, blue collar role players and rookies.
Backe admitted that there was some luck involved in the win streak. Cooper's goal against the Dynamo came from a random deflection after a botched back pass. Brad Davis missed three golden opportunities to score in the second half. The Red Bulls also needed a couple of goal line clearances to escape LA.
But credit New York for earning those shutouts.
D.C. United dismantled the Red Bulls by employing an attacking style. New York's backline crumbled under constant pressure and D.C. won that game 4-1. The Union have struggled to score this season and need to find some offensive rhythm to keep New York off balance. That looks to be the key to beating this New York team at the moment: force their defense to make mistakes.
If the Union play off of their momentum from Wednesday's 2-1 win vs. FC Schalke, they'll have a strong chance to snap a two-match losing streak in league play.
WATCH: Union-Red Bulls preview