MLS finally has the match-up the suits in the league office have wanted for years. New York against Los Angeles has been the league dream. Why does the league so blatantly favor such a pairing? Clearly, it’s not about the integrity of the game. It’s about matching the two largest media markets, never mind any sporting consideration. So, when the Red Bulls eased past a flagging FC Dallas side on Wednesday night, the biggest cheer probably came from the commissioner’s office.
Fortunately for the rest of us, this two leg affair comes early on in the MLS post-season and finds the LA Galaxy returning to full strength. Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane both completed full training sessions during the week and should play a part in the nationally televised first leg. With those two on the end of passes from David Beckham, the Galaxy will be looking to gain a firm hold on the tie before leaving the early winter in New York for sunny LA.
While much has been written about the Galaxy’s attacking weapons, they also had the league’s tightest defense. Goalkeepers Josh Saunders and Donovan Ricketts only conceded twenty-eight goals, eight better than the next best defense. In front of them is an all American group including Sean Franklin, Todd Dunivant, A.J. Delagarza, Gregg Berhalter, Omar Gonzalez, Frankie Hejduk, Dasan Robinson, and occasionally Bryan Jordan. The team benefited from not losing any of them to national team duty during the season.
Having Beckham for a full season made a difference, too. The former England captain played twenty-six league games, the most of his five year career so far, and dished out fifteen assists. His veteran leadership has been crucial during Donovan’s absences for injury and international duty.
Against the Red Bulls, the Galaxy will have to exploit some of the defensive frailty that caused a precipitous drop in the standings during the second half of the season. Right back Jan Gunnar Solli’s suspension for getting sent off in the Wild Card game means that Pedro Mendes will be going up against Donovan. That could be an advantage for the visitors.
In the Red Bulls favor, a winter storm moved through the New York area, bringing freezing temperatures and plenty of precipitation. That may neutralize some of Beckham’s long rang passing and give an advantage to the likes of Dane Richards, whose speed can unsettle defenses.
What the Red Bulls will need most is for their expensive players to play like expensive players. That means Thierry Henry can’t waste too much time sulking if a pass goes awry or a teammate doesn’t give him the ball when he wants it. It also means that Rafael Marquez has to show belief in everybody in the same jersey.
Coach Hans Backe knows he can count on solid efforts from Joel Lindpere, Teemu Tainio, and Roy Myers. But, can Tim Ream go without making a crucial error? He’s had a poor season even knowing that there may be European scouts watching. Frank Rost can’t afford any blunders in goal either. And most importantly, the Red Bulls have to find a way to get through the league’s top defense. When will Backe finally give Juan Agudelo a chance to show he can unlock an MLS side when something is on the line? He hasn’t yet, showing complete faith in Richards and Luke Rodgers. That doesn’t look like enough against the high-flying Galaxy.