New York Red Bulls celebrate after their 1-0 victory against Orlando City at Red Bull Arena.

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Harnett: Red Bulls Should Keep Stellar Season Rolling Against Columbus

Sean Hartnett
November 02, 2018 - 2:48 pm
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The Red Bulls enjoyed a landmark campaign after setting an MLS record with 71 points on the season. There is a growing feeling that this group can deliver the franchise’s first MLS Cup title.

Despite Jesse Marsch leaving midseason for an assistant manager gig at RB Leipzig, the Red Bulls machine kept rolling along under the watch of Chris Armas.

The Red Bulls rallied to win the final five games of the regular season to pip Atlanta United for the Supporters’ Shield. Now the real test begins against the Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

“We feel a desire and a strong hunger to go after this,” Armas told the team’s official website. “We are looking for our first MLS Cup. We think, and I have said it recently, that this team on the inside we know is the best team that we have ever had, so that’s what we are focused on more an optimistic approach, more of what we have and what we accomplished more than we maybe have not done in previous years.”

The Red Bulls will travel to MAPFRE Stadium for Sunday’s first leg and host the second leg at Red Bull Arena on Nov. 11. Notably, the Red Bulls haven’t lost at home since Jul. 28.

>>MORE: Hartnett: NYCFC Facing Tough Matchup Against Atlanta

Bradley Wright-Phillips is the jewel in the Red Bulls’ attack after another impressive, 20-goal campaign. Alejandro Romero Gamarra (A.K.A. Kaku) notched six goals of his own and provided 14 assists. Gamarra, homegrown talent Derrick Etienne Jr. and 11-goal scorer Daniel Royer have proved that curtailing the Red Bulls’ attack is about more than shutting down one man.

While their attack grabs a lot of the headlines, the Red Bulls also boast the strongest defense in the MLS. New York’s 33 goals against was the least conceded by all MLS teams in 2018. Defender Aaron Long is a finalist for MLS Defender of the Year. Long ranked in the top 20 league-wide in the following categories: fourth in aerials won (101), fifth in clearances (146), eighth in duels won (176), tied for eighth in blocks (24) and 16th in interceptions (16).

Veteran goalkeeper Luis Robles enjoyed a career-best season at age 34. Robles led the MLS regular season in wins (21), shutouts (14) and goals-against average (0.97).

Goals were hard to come by from the Crew. Their 43 goals were the fewest of all MLS Cup qualifiers. That said, Gyasi Zardes scored 19 goals during the regular season. He and crafty 34-year-old playmaker Federico Higuaín will need to be marked closely by New York’s defense.

It’s difficult to point to reasons why Columbus could pull off an upset, but one factor is keeper Zack Steffen, who tied for third in the MLS with 10 shutouts while the Crew only allowed 47 goals as a team.

I expect Robles and Wright-Phillips to be at their best over the course of two legs to send New York to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Follow Sean on Twitter -- @HartnettHockey