Head-to-Head Breakdown: LA Galaxy vs. New York

Assessing how the MLS giants stack up ahead of titanic clash

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Donovan Ricketts is the reigning Goalkeeper of the Year, but he hasn’t reached that level so far in 2011. Last weekend, he was chipped twice against Dallas, and it’s safe to say NY will try to catch him off his line. He can start the break with a throw as well as any ‘keeper in MLS.

GOALKEEPERS

New York’s Bouna Coundoul was in the odd position of having set the team record for shutouts in 2010, then enter 2011 as a backup. Since replacing the concussed Greg Sutton, though, Bouna’s been nearly flawless and his pure shot-stopping ability wins games. He's still capable of single-handedly losing games as well, though.

Early in the season the Galaxy were leaking goals left and right. Then Omar Gonzalez got healthy, and they’re suddenly one of the stoutest in the league again. A.J. DeLaGarza has slid into central defense once again, while Sean Franklin on the right and Todd Dunivant on the left both push into attack liberally. They are all solid and know their roles positionally, but can be hurried into poor distribution and the occasional giveaway. On set-pieces, they often play zonally and allow Gonzales - who’s dominant - to ballhawk.

DEFENSE

The Red Bulls are on one of the all-time great defensive runs over the past 30 games or so. Part of it is tactical discipline, but most of it is simply because they keep the ball so well. Rafa Márquez and Tim Ream are the league’s two best distributors from the back, and fullbacks Roy Miller and Jan Gunnar Solli are both solid. All four are capable of getting caught in possession on occasion, and none is dominant in the air - but they rarely foul, so that’s not much of a hindrance.

Through the first few games of 2011, David Beckham was like a wind-up toy: Give him the ball and he’d cross it toward the penalty spot. Wouldn’t matter at all what was happening elsewhere on the field. Since moving centrally, Beckham’s been much more team-oriented, and Juninho has made up for the veteran’s defensive shortcomings. One wing will be manned by Landon Donovan, who’s finally injury-free, while the other could be occupied either by Chris Birchall, Mike Magee or Paolo Cardozo. Expect the more defensive-minded Birchall to get the nod and spend 60 minutes running himself to death in order to break up New York’s offensive rhythm.

MIDFIELD

The Red Bulls midfield looked like a revelation for two-and-a-half games - then Teemu Tainio went down with an injury at halftime of last week’s 1-0 win over Sporting KC and the wheels came off. The Finnish d-mid was replaced by veteran Carl Robinson, who was overrun by SKC’s attack. It’s likely either Robinson or Mehdi Ballouchy - not a natural d-mid at all - will get the call, and LA will do what they can to exploit that weakness. The wings will be manned by the dangerous Joel Lindpere and Dane Richards, and Dwayne De Rosario will play at the point of the diamond. But without Tainio, there’s a good chance all three will be starved for service.

Juan Pablo Ángel was LA’s big-name offseason signing, but thus far the returns have been minimal. Two other offseason pick-ups - veteran Chad Barrett and Argentine newcomer Miguel López - have seen the majority of time up top, with cameos by Magee and Donovan. None is a pure finisher, but all four move well, press constantly and combine with each other. That said, Ángel will badly want to break out against his former team, and he’ll likely get the chance to. Barrett is his most probable strike partner.

OFFENSE

Thierry Henry was supposed to be the straw that stirs the drink, but things didn’t come together for RBNY until Luke Rodgers was inserted into the lineup. The Englishman is both short and short on skill, but he makes brilliant off-the-ball runs to open up room for Henry and the midfielders and the offense has prospered as a result. LA will probably play a very deep line and dare New York to beat Ricketts from distance, minimizing Rodgers’ ability to stretch the game.

 

Bruce Arena has won simply everything there is to win in US soccer. His old D.C. United teams were the first MLS Cup champs, the first to win the double, the first to win the other double, the first to win continental titles, and the first to win intercontinental titles. Since taking over LA two-and-a-half years ago, he’s turned the most porous team in the league into a lock-down group that won last year’s Supporters’ Shield and finished runners-up in 2009 in both the Shield race and the MLS Cup final. His face is the first on the Mt. Rushmore of MLS coaches.

COACH

While Arena was getting the Galaxy into gear, Hans Backe was busy pulling New York out of the abyss that was the Juan Carlos Osorio regime. The Swede hasn’t been perfect - he was thoroughly outcoached by Frank Yallop in last year’s MLS Cup Playoffs - but he’s instituted a system that’s intuitive for his players, has made savvy acquisitions and led RBNY to the 2010 regular-season Eastern Conference title. He doesn’t have the big-game experience of Arena, but he’s not likely to be overawed by the moment, either.

LA’s bench is made up of grinders, MLS vets who grind out minutes and years by being fundamentally sound and not taking a lot off the table - but not bringing much to it, either. The only real exception could be Cardozo, a young Uruguayan attacker who loves being on the ball but has no idea what to do off of it. He’s shown flashes of real talent - and very real inexperience as well. Defensively, the Galaxy have veterans Frankie Hejduk and Gregg Berhalter to call upon if things get hairy.

BENCH

Juan Agudelo may very well be the most exciting player in MLS, and Backe has the luxury of bringing him off the bench. The defense is less spectacular but still solid, headed by veteran Carlos Mendes. The midfield, however, is a major question mark, especially with Tainio out for the weekend. There’s potential in the form of John Rooney, Matt Kassel, Austin da Luz and a few others, but there’s precious little experience there.

The Galaxy have been picking up points after an uninspiring start, but they still look like just a shadow of the team they were at this point last year. No one’s scoring consistently, their possession comes and goes, and Ricketts isn’t quite the imposing presence he was in 2011. They’re still one of the best teams in the league, but the intimidation of last season’s Shield-winning club is gone. That said, this is a big game and LA have Landon Donovan. New York do not.

OVERALL

New York have won three in a row by a combined 8-0 score line, and until Tainio’s injury, were on the verge of doing something never before accomplished in franchise history: starting the same lineup four games in a row. The story of the game will likely come down to how well and how quickly the Red Bulls adjust to the loss of their midfield leader. If Robinson or Ballouchy - or Solli or Márquez, on the outside chance one of them get shifted to midfield - play the spot well, they’ll be favorites. If not, the Galaxy have to be the odds-on choice.

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