CHICAGO (AP) – Tim Cahill is set to play in his first MLS game at the perfect time for the New York Red Bulls.
The Red Bulls and host Houston Dynamo will meet for the Eastern Conference lead Friday night in the first of two straight matchups between the clubs.
Cahill officially joined New York (11-6-5) on Monday after spending his previous eight seasons with Everton in the English Premier League. The Australian midfielder was attracted by the presence of former EPL star Thierry Henry with the Red Bulls.
"I have made a commitment to the MLS," Cahill said. "I've watched a lot of MLS games over the years. It's a real physical league. I can't begin to tell you how many people think this league is underrated."
Cahill made his club debut Tuesday in a 2-1 loss to the EPL's Tottenham Hotspur in a friendly, drawing a penalty that Kenny Cooper converted. His presence has bolstered the Red Bulls' hopes of winning their first MLS Cup.
"We will now have a central midfielder who will make us consistent," coach Hans Backe said. "We now have the talent to win it. It's massive for us."
New York has 38 points to lead the East, with Houston (10-5-7) and Sporting Kansas City tied for second with 37.
The Red Bulls and Dynamo are the only unbeaten home teams in MLS with 7-0-3 records, and they'll also meet next Friday in New Jersey. New York is on a 4-0-6 run against Houston in MLS play.
The Dynamo, though, have outscored opponents 11-1 during a four-game win streak. They are on a 5-0-2 surge and insist they are not getting caught up in trying to win the conference.
"We're not going in saying, 'Oh, we have to get first in the East,'" goalkeeper Tally Hall said. "It's almost like going back to basics, and we're looking back and asking what we can do better."
Hall has posted five shutouts in his last six starts, with the only goal conceded in that span coming on a penalty.
He figures to be tested by a New York attack that was already strong without Cahill. Cooper is second in the league with 13 goals and Henry fourth with 11.
The Red Bulls are 0-3-2 in their last five road games, falling 3-1 at Montreal on Saturday. Midfielder Dax McCarty received his fifth yellow card of the season and is suspended Friday.
Houston is led by midfielder Brad Davis, who has 10 assists to tie D.C.'s Dwayne De Rosario for the league lead. Davis has one goal and six assists during the win streak.
The Dynamo's seven-game unbeaten run has featured just one goal from Will Bruin, who leads the team with 10 and missed the Toronto game with a calf injury. Brian Ching and Calen Carr have three goals apiece during the surge, with Davis and former Red Bulls striker Macoumba Kandji each chipping in two.
Carr and Ching scored in a 2-0 win at Toronto FC on Saturday.