UPPER MONTCLAIR, N.J. — After missing the Red Bulls’ last three league games and their US Open Cup win last week due to a heel injury, forward Luke Rodgers was on the training ground with the first team on Tuesday preparing for Wednesday night’s match against Toronto FC (8 pm ET, watch LIVE online).
It was the first time in three weeks that the Englishman has been able to train with the team and Rodgers, the team’s second leading scorer, looked fit, showing no real hesitation in possession games and tactical training.
“[It’s] just been a nightmare, an absolute nightmare really, that’s all I can say about it,” Rodgers told MLSsoccer.com of his prolonged absence. “If you have a hamstring injury, you can do something about it, get treatment. With a heel injury, what can you do? Just rest. It’s a pain, a real pain.”
Rodgers’ hard-charging ways have prompted Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe to call the striker “a pain” for defenders. The Red Bulls are hoping that a healthy Rodgers can help put more pressure on opposing backlines and open up the field for the rest of the team, including fellow forward Thierry Henry.
“That’s the kind of guy you want around,” Henry said of his strike partner. “He moves around, he gets in [the opponent’s] face.”
After training on Tuesday at Montclair State University, Rodgers took anti-inflammatory shots to help manage the pain. Backe maintains that Rodgers is “ready to get involved,” but the forward is a tad bit more reserved than his coach in giving a prognosis.
“I’m not sure yet,” Rodgers said. “Have to wait and see how I respond but today wasn’t bad. It’s been a nightmare and I just hope it’s over, really. I hope that I am ready to go at it and give it a go for Toronto and go out there and help us get three points.”
A team that had Supporters' Shield ambitions in the preseason seems to be more focused on another piece of silverware. New York endured a rough stretch in May and June when the team lost five regulars to the Gold Cup and others to injuries, and the Red Bulls aren’t expecting to find themselves atop the table at the end of the season. That means that they won’t press the panic button just yet.
“It would be nice to get a win, of course, but I don’t think we need to pressure the guys,” Backe said. “I want to be No. 1 in December.”
And the MLS Cup now seems to be the Red Bulls ultimate goal.
“The only thing that matters here is the playoffs,” Henry said. “That’s the beauty of it.
Over the course of their last 11 games during that tough stretch in May and June, New York have won just once, churning out eight draws in the process. The vultures aren’t circling overhead yet; the Red Bulls sit just three points outside the top of the Eastern Conference. But a win is needed, if only for this team’s psyche.
“Draws are not getting us too far, we need to start winning and start finishing games,” midfielder Teemu Tainio told MLSsoccer.com. “Every home game is a must-win game. Draws don’t do us any good anymore.”
The pressure is there for two wins this week as New York hosts both Toronto and D.C. United at Red Bull Arena.
“We all know we need a win — a win right now is massive,” Rodgers said. “A lot of draws. We know we need a win, no one needs to tell us that.”
Kristian R. Dyer can be followed at twitter.com/KristianRDyer