The Throw-In: Stars behind the stars in LA-NY clash
Raise your hand if the name Michael Collins means anything to you. No, it’s not a cocktail made with gin. Nor is it the name of Phil Collins’ lesser-known brother. (Though we will accept “Irish revolutionary hero.”)
The guy we’re thinking of may be the greatest footnote in human history. Forty-one years ago, the Italian-born American pilot sat on his back, orbiting the moon for 21 hours while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the lunar surface.
That’s it. Collins did the small dirty work of making sure all three could get home while his flight mates took all the glory and became household names.
The guy deserves a little love, doesn’t he? And so, today, we salute the guys who don’t get the glory but are just as important parts of the puzzle.
WATCH: Best of LA vs. NY
Friday’s megaclash between the LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls won’t be a seminal moment quite like the first moonwalk. (Though to be fair, it sure feels like we at MLSsoccer.com are hyping it that way, doesn’t it?)
But it will indeed be a great moment for the league when the two highest-profile squads MLS has ever fielded in its 15-year history share the pitch at The Home Depot Center.
Even without injured Thierry Henry, the combined star power of Designated Players David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Rafa Márquez and Juan Pablo Angel probably could produce enough electricity to power the LA Basin for months.
Still, let’s not forget, there will be another 32 players suited up for the match. Or, rather, 90 percent of the dressed players are dudes who aren’t DPs.
“That’s good math,” mused Galaxy defender Todd Dunivant, when informed of these slick calculations by MLSsoccer.com. “I like that one.”
Dunivant may be one of the most unassuming guys on either team. Sure, he’s always a go-to for a quote and has a wicked sense of humor. However, the 29-year-old journeyman left back isn’t someone you’d exactly call high-profile.
What he is, though, is a crucial part of the reason the Galaxy are tops in the league. And it’s not just a string of solid performances all year, handling some tough matchups against the league’s best right wingers. Dunivant is the epitome of “glue guy,” one of the players who have provided stability in LA.
When Bruce Arena took the job two summers ago, his first goal was to repair a fractured locker room in the wake of Beckham’s tumultuous arrival and the equally tumultuous departure of Ruud Gullit and Alexi Lalas.
And Bruce Almighty went back to the well of hard workers he knew from his past – guys like 2002 World Cup vets Gregg Berhalter, Eddie Lewis and Tony Sanneh; guys he coached during his brief spell in New York, like Dunivant and Dema Kovalenko.
“He told me that first and foremost, his goal was to rebuild the locker room,” recalled Dunivant of what Arena told him when the coach traded for him before the 2009 season. “That was one of the reasons he brought me in. You have to have special mix to deal with the Beckhams and the Landons. That’s why we’re here.”
Dunivant’s play hasn’t been too shabby, either. And neither has Kovalenko’s, another non-glory guy who’s indispensible. When the irascible Ukrainian is on the pitch, his bite forces teams to change the way they move the ball through the midfield.
Lest we forget, Kovalenko was injured during last year’s MLS Cup final and was sorely missed, as Kyle Beckerman was able to dominate en route to Real Salt Lake’s title.
LA’s biggest blue-collar workers are crucial to the Galaxy’s quest for a third MLS Cup title, and Friday will be no different. Dunivant will be tasked with trying to slow down Dane Richards, while Kovalenko will try to disrupt the channels between Mehdi Ballouchy and Ángel.
“They're going to play vital roles,” Arena said of the pairing. “When we've been good this year, it's been because of our entire team playing well and playing with confidence, and we're going to need that on Friday.”
It's the same for Arena’s former team. In fact, the lesson out of LA probably provided the Red Bulls the anti-example of how to add high-profile players as seamlessly as possible. When you’re a team already trying to rebuild with a new coaching staff and players, adding two huge names to your roster in midseason has all kinds of potential to disrupt things.
Yet by all accounts, Henry and Márquez arrived in New York with deadly serious professionalism, which has helped the rest of team accept them. Case in point: center back Carlos Mendes.
The Long Island native is another guy whose name isn’t exactly widely known, but he has survived five separate head coaches in New York and has finally found his niche under Hans Backe.
Mendes battled through a rash of injuries and proved himself to the Swedish manager, enough so to cement himself as a starter who is anything but flashy on a seriously flashy team. Even Mendes’ center-back partner, rookie Tim Ream, gets more attention than he does.
“I don’t have to be in the spotlight,” Mendes said. “We’ve got a lot of big names – that’s fine. I’m just happy to be getting my chance and given the opportunity to prove myself each game. We still have a lot of work to do.”
The 29-year-old is so OK with being in the background, in fact, he didn’t give it a second thought when team brass approached him about surrendering his No. 4 jersey to Márquez when the Mexican National Team captain and former Barcelona star arrived in New Jersey.
“It wasn’t an easy decision,” he admitted. “It’s tough, because he’s recognized as a No. 4. But really, it was what was best for the club.”
That kind of attitude and self-sacrificing play has helped New York tremendously. With Mendes and Ream holding down the back line, the Red Bulls have averaged just .75 goals conceded in their past eight games and have helped the team close the gap on first-place Columbus in the East.
“They are the two players that have surprised me the most,” Backe said of his center backs in a media conference call on Tuesday. “Without these players, you can’t win anything. You need them to win a title. They have to perform all the time.”
When that ball kicks off at the HDC on Friday night, go ahead, let yourself be dazzled by the combined star power in Tinseltown. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the moment as some of the biggest names in the game take their moonwalk.
Just don’t forget – someone’s gotta fly the ship, too.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.