Season finale carries weight for Union, Red Bulls


CHESTER, Pa. -- Its down to one.

After a 33-game journey that saw the Union reach highs, lows and everything in between, the playoff-bound teams 2011 regular season will come to an end on Thursday at Red Bull Arena, when the Union take on the New York Red Bulls in the season finale.

The high-profile contest between rivals isnt just a grudge match, as it could spell the difference between the playoffs or an early off-season for the Red Bulls and a wildcard play-in game or a valuable bye in the first round of the playoffs for the Union. For both teams, a winning result is needed.

Its an important game because of the standings, said coach Peter Nowak during his weekly press conference on Tuesday. You have four teams that can end up in completely different positions going into the playoffs, whether its the wildcards or the three automatic spots. Its a different mentality going into this game. Its a very important game for us.

In a battle for the Eastern Conference title, the Union, with 48 points, are tied with Sporting Kansas City, but lose the number of wins tiebreaker. The Union are being trailed by the Columbus Crew with 47 points and the Houston Dynamo with 46. Under the correct circumstances, all four have a chance to take the conference.

For months we were looking into the window of the store at the candies inside, said Nowak of his team missing out on the postseason in their expansion year. After months of hard work, not only for the players but the coaching staff and medical staff, were now in the store and its up to us how many candies we take. It could be one, three or five, or we could take the whole store.

With a clear understanding of how important a win against the Red Bulls would be for his teams immediate playoff future, Nowak dispelled pressure on his young squad by downplaying the necessary three-point result. What the Union will do on Thursday, Nowak insisted, is play the best they can, the way they know how.

Were going to play for the win, as we always do, the coach said. We will try to make it difficult for the other team like we always do, were going to play compact, organized, disciplined and play hard soccer.

For a franchise as young as ours, to not only make the playoffs but be a contender for the East, is a great accomplishment. There are many teams out there who wish to be in our position and they wait to get into the playoffs many, many years.

One issue the Union may face on the short week, coming off a 1-1 tie with Toronto FC at PPL Park last Saturday to clinch their first playoff berth, is the possibility for an emotional letdown. Hitting the road with a 2011 MLS Cup Playoff invitation in their pocket might lessen the teams intensity. The competitive dials could get turned down.

Nowak isnt worried.

If youre not excited and motivated the week before the playoff start, you dont deserve to be in the playoffs, Nowak said. The group recognizes that as soon as we qualified, that now we can do what it takes to look good.

This game is completely different, its national TV, its the last game, we have fans traveling. I believe this team recognizes whats in front of them.

Whats in front of them is a desperate Red Bulls team standing at 9-8-16 and in need of a result against the Union to fend off the Portland Timbers for the final wildcard spot. However, they will be without leading goal scorer Thierry Henry (14), who received a red card in the Red Bulls 2-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City on Saturday night. Yet, without Henry, the Red Bulls could still pose an issue with the speedy Juan Agudelo and Luke Rodgers up front and Dane Richards manning the midfield.

You have to make sure youre aware of the situation, Nowak said, keying on defensive awareness. They have good wings, especially from the right with Jan Gunnar Solli and Richards. We have to make sure that we dont just concentrate on one or two guys but stay aware of many things.

On the other side, the Union will have the services of captain and goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, who made his return on Saturday after a seven-game layoff caused by a broken finger. Striker Danny Mwanga continues his trip back to one-hundred percent health, as he is on the mend after suffering a hip injury.

Likely held out of the contest will be veteran midfielder Veljko Paunovic, who received an MRI on what is thought to be his left hamstring. The injury was suffered late in the game against Toronto and the recovery is not expected to be timely enough to see the Serbian play on Thursday.

Paunovic is having problems with his hamstring so were going to see where hes at Wednesday, Nowak said. Im not sure its going to be a positive message, but well see.
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