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Eastern Conference Championship

Stars dimming as New York head to Vancouver

The New York Red Bulls touched down in Vancouver on Friday morning, and brought with them several question marks about their starting XI heading into Saturday night's matchup with the Whitecaps (5:30 pm ET; Direct Kick, MatchDay Live) thanks to international call-ups and injuries.

The biggest name missing is Thierry Henry, who is tied for second in the league with six goals. The star striker is nursing a knee injury that’s bothered him off and on all season and was aggravated by an 87-minute performance in a 2-2 tie on Wednesday against Colorado.

Head coach Hans Backe hopes to have Henry available for next weekend and said the player is back in the New York area rehabbing the knee injury with members of the team’s training staff. Ideally, Backe said, Henry would be fit again to play week in and week out, but the midweek games can push the player’s health.

“I think if he plays [one] Saturday, [the next] Saturday it shouldn’t be a problem,” Backe said.

Carlos Mendes returns as a center back come Saturday, replacing Rafa Márquez in the starting lineup once again. Márquez, who had a groin injury that shelved him for the Rapids game, is away with Mexico for the Gold Cup. The longest-tenured player on the team, Mendes played well against Colorado.

“A very clever center back, he has good vision,” Backe said. “Mendes is a solid player.”

Backe hasn’t determined the starting XI that will face the Whitecaps, but Mendes could play right back, pushing Jan Gunnar Solli into the midfield, which will be missing Dane Richards to Gold Cup duty with Jamaica and Mehdi Ballouchy, who is pursuing his green card and can’t leave the United States during the process.

Solli’s hamstring is an injury concern and two other starters — Luke Rodgers (ankle) and Roy Miller (hamstring) — will also be less than 100 percent and could start on the bench.

Backe happy with Sutton

Last weekend, Backe went with Greg Sutton in goal instead of Bouna Coundoul, who was the starter for the majority of last year. It was a surprising move, considering that Coundoul was conceding just 0.86 goals per game this season, fourth-best in the league.

Since stepping into net, Sutton has allowed two goals in each of his past two games as starter — two of which came on penalty kicks and two via dead-ball situations. On Wednesday night, one of Colorado’s free kicks squirmed underneath the New York defensive wall and past a stunned Sutton, a score which Backe couldn’t blame his 'keeper for not stopping.

“No problem at all [with Sutton], but I think he’s unhappy with his performance,” Backe said. “I can’t blame any goalie [for that goal]. I’m very pleased with him.”

Starless XI

After Saturday night, the Red Bulls will lose more big names to national teams as Juan Agudelo, Tim Ream and Dwayne De Rosario depart for Gold Cup preparation. With a depleted roster, Backe thinks defense will be the key to getting results.

“We need to focus on solid defense,” Backe said. “We need clean sheets.”

The Red Bulls gaffer isn’t playing prognosticator and trying to set a certain number of results for his role players to churn out while his stars are away. He expects to compete and play well, despite the loss of much of his starpower.

“I haven’t counted like that,” Backe said. “I still think we can surprise. I haven’t counted the next six games.”

Champions League-less

On Saturday afternoon, Manchester United will take on Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League final and the English side will be led by Wayne Rooney, the brother of Red Bulls midfielder John Rooney. The younger Rooney traveled with the team to Vancouver and figures to be in the game-day lineup.

That means it’s unlikely John will be able to watch Wayne vie for one of the top honors in the sport. Due to the early start to the Vancouver match, pregame preparations will probably overlap much of the European game.

“Probably not,” Backe said when asked if the team will watch the game. “Perhaps the first half or something.”

Kristian R. Dyer can be followed at twitter.com/KristianRDyer