HANOVER, N.J. – The New York Red Bulls finished tops in the Eastern Conference during the regular season for the third time in four years, and entered the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs on an undefeated run that stretched back to July 3.
While the Red Bulls flew into the postseason unbeaten in 16 games, the Montreal Impact limped. They were the East's fifth seed and carried injury and personnel issues, all combining to make the club appear to be in turmoil from the outside.
But instead of laying down, Montreal looked like world beaters in dismantling D.C. United 4-2 in the Knockout Round of the playoffs. Then they made it tough on New York in the first leg of their Conference Semifinals series, slowing down RBNY's high-press, up-tempo game and churning out a 1-0 result that now has them 90 minutes from the Eastern Conference Championship.
Montreal played like a side with a chip on their shoulder.
“I don’t know enough because I’m not there on the inside. They talked when they were up there, they kept calling themselves the underdog. They kept painting us as the best team in the league,” Red Bulls head coach and former Impact boss Jesse Marsch said on Friday.
“Listen, none of this matters come playoff time. The records all go out the window and now it’s about making plays in big games. Give them credit, they made one and we weren’t able to make one in the first game. But at home our job is to put them in a hard game and make more plays. We’ll be ready for that.”
Marsch expects Montreal to potentially “throw a couple wrinkles at us” in Leg 2 at Red Bull Arena on Sunday (4 pm ET, ESPN/ESPN Deportes, RDS, TSN5). But it likely won’t change the Canadian side's mentality as underdogs against a team that has won the Supporters' Shield twice in the past four seasons.
“I expect them to protect their lead. I’d also expect them at a couple of moments to also be aggressive because a road goal puts them in a good situation,” Marsch said.
“And if they want to try and be a little aggressive, our job is to punish them. It’ll be a good game, it’ll be a little bit of a chess match.”
This isn’t the first time that the Red Bulls have played an opponent with an edge. Rookie Alex Muyl, an influential presence on RBNY's right wing, said that for some of the teams they play this year, going against New York is “one of the biggest games of the season for them.”
As such, he and his teammates say that they are prepared for moments where a team like Montreal is willing to embrace the underdog mentality and dig in for a result.
“They like to put themselves in that kind of role because it really does speak to the way they’re going to play against us,” Muyl told MLSsoccer.com. “And it helps them mentally for the kind of game they’re going to play against us, where we’re going to have most of the ball, dominate mostly and they’re going to look try to hit on the counter.”
“That mindset it speaks to way that they mentally are trying to entrench themselves in that belief and ideology.”