Is this a possible MLS Cup preview? Certainly there are a number of MLS executives that would like to think so. Even without Thierry Henry in the lineup for New York Friday night, there will still be some of the best talent MLS has to offer on display. What treat for you fans here in Southern California.
The Galaxy come in unbeaten in their last three games for the first time since early June, and maybe this is an indication that LA is getting back into form. Although the team did not play well in the win against D.C. United on Saturday, I have said all along that the sign of a championship caliber team is one that can grind out a result even when not performing to the best of its abilities. It worked against D.C., but trying to do the same against the Red Bulls this week could lead to a far different result.
The biggest concern for me is LA’s central defense. For much of this season there have been three players that have occupied the two central defender spot: Gregg Berhalter, Omar Gonzalez and Leonardo. Two of the three, the two that did such a good job against New York at Red Bull Arena last month, Berhalter and Gonzalez, will not be available for Bruce Arena this time around. Berhalter is still recovering from an injury and Gonzalez will miss the match due to yellow card accumulation.
The Galaxy will most likely look to Leonardo and Yohance Marshall at the center back position. Leonardo has been effective at times this year, but keep in mind that when the young Brazilian has played, it has been next to Berhalter or Gonzalez. Marshall made his MLS debut on Saturday against D.C., and played very well. He spent the past five months on loan to Austin Aztex, playing in 24 games for the club, so the good news is that he is not just coming in this cold. However, even with those games under his belt, it will be vital for Sean Franklin and Todd Dunivant to continue their stellar play at the outside back positions and organize the LA defense more than they would with either Gregg or Omar in there. It is also worth mentioning that last year Bruce Arena told me he had “a lot of confidence” in Yohance, and that he expects Marshall to be in the Galaxy plans for years to come. Seems like a pretty good endorsement if you ask me.
I imagine the rest of LA’s lineup will look the same. The Buddle-Kirovski connection up front seems to have given Edson some renewed energy. Having a veteran like Jovan next to the MLS leading scorer takes a lot of the physical challenges from opposing defenders away. Edson no longer has to be the sole target to win all of the long balls in the air. Plus, although Kirovski is not as quick as he used to be, he is still as intelligent on the field as ever. Jovan combines very well with other players, and more often than not makes the right pass at the right time during the run of play. I get the sense that this is the connection Bruce Arena has been looking for throughout the season, and the one that we will see for the remainder of the year.
One question that the Galaxy (and specifically Bruce Arena) will have to answer is just how much time he will be able to get out of David Beckham on Friday night. His minutes have increased in each of his two appearances this season, playing the final 37 minutes of the win over United. Bruce has been very cautious with Beckham to this point, but you have to wonder if this is the week where Arena loosens the reins on his Designated Player. We all know that Beckham likes to be on the field for the big games, and this without question qualifies as that.
Both Beckham and Arena were coy about their plans when speaking to reporters on Wednesday, so your guess is as good as mine at this point. But whatever the Galaxy coach ends up going with, I think that this game will see some offensive fireworks.
I was very surprised to see just one goal scored the first time these teams met last month at Red Bull Arena. When Edson Buddle struck just 10 minutes into the game at Red Bull Arena back in early August, my mind told me “here we go with another New York shootout”. Fast forward 80 minutes to the final whistle, and Buddle’s strike ended up as the game-winner. Some will disagree with me, but I felt LA was under a ton of pressure in the second half and really were fortunate to get out of there with three points, let alone one. The Red Bulls had several chances to score in the last 20 minutes of the game, but for one reason or another could not put the ball in the back of the net.
Even with out Henry in the fold, the Red Bulls are a very dangerous team and they have a long list of weapons with which to attack the Galaxy defense.
Rafa Marquez has solidified the central midfield, and taken some of the pressure off of Juan Pablo Angel to always hold the ball going forward. The recent addition of Mehdi Ballouchy, a player that is still trying to live up to the potential from when he arrived in the league, gives New York another great linking option in the center of the field. The one area that Hans Backe’s team might be vulnerable is on the back line and in goal. Rookie Tim Ream has shown confidence in the back playing along side Carlos Mendes, but what those two, and the rest of the New York defense lacks in speed. Bouna Coundol is one of the best when it comes to shot-stopping, but he can be rattled early in matches. And for how good he is with his hands, he can be equally bad with the ball at his feet. If the Galaxy can get at him early they should be in a good position, but if they let him build with confidence as the game goes on it could get tricky.
Quick Hits –
New York has three losses since the World Cup break, and all three have come against teams that are chasing the Supporters Shield (LA, Columbus, & Real Salt Lake). As a result, the Red Bulls need this game to show that they should be in the discussion when it comes to talking about the elite teams in MLS. I imagine that has to be one of the talking points for head coach Hans Backe.
Galaxy fans have to enjoy the sight of Dema Kovalenko on the field along with Juninho. Similar to my comments above concerning Kirovski and Buddle, it looks like this is the midfield partnership Bruce Arena has been looking for. It is a perfect balance of grit & bite from Kovalenko, with the skill and precision passing from the young Brazilian.
I urged you last week to make this week’s game truly feel like a hostile environment when the Red Bulls arrive. With the announcement of the grass berm being opened up for general admission, it sounds like the HDC will be rocking! Leading the way no doubt will be all the club’s supporters groups from their respective spots. I love hearing the Angel City Brigade and LA Riot Squad to doing the call and response chants during the run of play. Keep it up Galaxy fans; this is going to be a great evening of soccer.