Sacha Kljestan - New York Red Bulls - August 18, 2017
Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

New York Red Bulls relishing underdog status in Knockout Round game at Fire

HANOVER, N.J. – For the first time since 2011, the New York Red Bulls will head into a playoff series as the underdog.

The sixth-seeded Red Bulls will take on the third-seeded Chicago Fire at Toyota Park in an Eastern Conference Knockout Round match in the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs on Wednesday night (8:30 pm ET | FS1, UniMás in the US; TSN3/5, TVAS in Canada). It’s unfamiliar territory for the Red Bulls, who topped the East three of the last four years and took the Supporters’ Shield twice in that stretch. They’ve made the playoffs every year since moving to Red Bull Arena in 2010, and their lowest playoff seed in that stretch was fifth in 2011.

While they didn’t quite reach the same heights as in past regular seasons, the Red Bulls are getting hot at the right time. They’re unbeaten in their last three, and relishing their underdog role heading into Wednesday’s match in Chicago.

“There’s a bit of a no looking back, nothing to fear, nothing to lose so, yeah, I think that’s it’s a different take than what we’re used to,” said head coach Jesse Marsch. “And I think in that way it will be a strength. We’re ready. I mean I don’t want to overanalyze it too much. I feel like we’re ready.”

A big reason for the Red Bulls’ lower-than-customary finish was a lengthy midseason slump that saw them go eight MLS games without a win in August and September. The rough stretch wasn’t without its positives, however. Marsch said that the slump, along with the club’s run to the US Open Cup final, helped New York build character ahead of the playoffs.

Of course, adding intrigue to Wednesday’s match is the fact that the Red Bulls will be facing their former captain, Dax McCarty. Traded to the Fire this offseason, McCarty’s influential play was key to Chicago’s 2017 turnaround and helped him carve out a spot on the US men’s national team.

McCarty still has plenty of friends on the Red Bulls, but they’ll all set their relationships aside on Wednesday night.

“That’s the pity of the playoffs. In the end, only one team is happy and after every series or every game, one team’s season is over and it’s sad and one team moves on,” said midfielder and current Red Bulls captain Sacha Kljestan. “One of us is going home, one of us is moving on so it’s going to be a bummer for one of the two of us, me or Dax. I hope it’s Dax that’s bummed come Wednesday night, 10-10:30.”