New York’s visit to LA was billed as a marquee match-up, the so-called "Showdown in Tinseltown," a battle royale between the league’s big spenders, both of which happen to be in the hunt for the Supporter’s Shield.
For once, the game lived up to its billing in terms of intensity and pace. But, as often seems to be the case, it wasn’t the marquee players who decided the outcome.
Formations: The Red Bulls were without two starters in forward Thierry Henry and right back Chris Albright. As a result they lined up in a modified version of the 4-4-2 they’ve been playing much of the year. The side ended up looking more like a 4-4-1-1, with Mehdi Ballouchy floating just underneath Juan Pablo Angel, similar to their game last week in Dallas in which Ballouchy played underneath Henry.
The Galaxy went with a straight 4-4-2 with one free winger in David Beckham and one inside-out winger in Landon Donovan. This basically meant that Beckham drifted back to the right on defense, but roamed freely offensively, providing space for right back Sean Franklin to overlap. Donovan was also somewhat free, but he stayed wider and higher in an effort to force Dane Richards, New York’s speedy right midfielder, to play more defense than he’s accustomed to.
On the backline, Bruce Arena had to send out two inexperienced central defenders in Yohance Marshall and Leonardo, replacements for regular starters Omar Gonzalez (suspended) and Gregg Berhalter (injured). Predictably, perhaps, Marshall and Leonardo were to be the goats on the night.
First Half: New York are, in general, more comfortable in possession than the Galaxy, who are much more dangerous on the counter-attack. That meant the game playing out in a pattern: The Red Bulls knocked the ball around the back and the midfield while the Galaxy stayed compact and tried to force turnovers.
One of the things the Red Bulls did successfully was occasionally drift into a 3-5-2 with Rafa Márquez sweeping between Tim Ream and Carlos Mendes while newly drafted right back Carey Talley and left back Roy Miller pushed up the flanks. This created a ton of width and numbers.
The danger of the three-man backline, however, especially a fluid one, is that it allows space on flanks and puts defenders into 1-on-1 situations. The Galaxy realized as much and attempted to capitalize on it, but they were foiled by their own lack of pace in the build-up out of the back and by difficulty playing quickly through the center of the pitch.
By the 30th minute or so, LA had mostly conceded that ground and gone to a “get it wide early” strategy.
New York weren’t doing too much better, though, with their only hint of offense being a 30-yard blast from Ballouchy in the 14th minute.
But the game changed in the 24th minute. Ángel received the ball in stride on the left side of the box with Marshall on his hip. A slight change-of-pace was all the Colombian needed to shed Marshall and get into the box with the ball on his foot and a chance to cross. If Ballouchy had been charging into the box instead of staying rooted to the spot, he’d have had his second goal in two games with the Red Bulls. Instead, the Galaxy were able to cut out the danger.
The seeds of New York’s two goals on the night, however, were planted with that play. The game began to open up for the Red Bulls as they focused more on isolating their attackers on LA’s raw central defensive duo.
The pay-off came in the 36th minute off a throw-in. Joel Lindpere beat Leonardo to a poor clearance from Marshall. His shot rasped off the post and fell to Richards, who was in the right place at the right time to nudge it in for the 1-0 lead.
The way Leonardo committed to the ball on the original touch by Lindpere basically took the defender out of the play and gave New York a clear look at goal. It was a shocking, all-or-nothing lunge of a challenge that neither Gonzalez nor Berhalter would likely have attempted.
Leonardo would get 10 more minutes, then be substituted at the break for A.J. DeLaGarza as Franklin slid into central defense.
Second Half: The Red Bulls, nursing a 1-0 lead on the road, were more than willing to knock the ball around and make the Galaxy chase.
LA, to their credit, chased well, peppering Bouna Coundoul’s goal in the early minutes of the half. A commitment to keeping Beckham higher up the field helped, as did the switch of Donovan to forward, but ultimately the Galaxy were betrayed by a lack of confidence and decisiveness in the box. Whether it was Donovan, Jovan Kirovski or, later, substitute Tristan Bowen, nobody was able to pull the trigger when they found space.
The danger in committing numbers forward is that you leave yourself vulnerable to the counterattack, something Arena was well aware of and mentioned pregame. Even though the Red Bulls aren’t particularly good countering as a team, they can be devastating when they get the ball to Richards in space. He effectively serves as a one-man counter in those situations.
It was exactly that scenario which led to the second goal. LA pushed numbers into the attack, and a great sliding clearance from Mendes took the ball off of Buddle’s foot and found Richards with acres of space at midfield and only Marshall to beat.
As they neared the box, Marshall actually did a very good job of forcing Richards wide and actually pushing him away from goal a bit. One touch put Richards past Marshall, but still with a bad angle and only Ángel—who was being shaded by Franklin and DeLaGarza—in support.
Marshall decided to end the drama and drag the diminutive attacker to the ground for the easiest of penalty calls.
Ángel converted neatly for his 13th of the year, the Red Bulls stayed compact for the final half hour, and when the final whistle sounded they had their biggest win since 2008’s victory over Real Salt Lake in the playoffs.
Final Thoughts: Arena won’t have learned much he didn’t already know about his team: Marshall and Leonardo obviously aren’t Berhalter and Gonzalez, and LA’s finishing has been poor since June.
With the rosters frozen there aren’t any changes LA can make for the final few games and postseason, so Arena will have to figure out how to get Buddle, Bowen, Kirovski and the other attackers on track.
Hans Backe, on the other hand, will be ecstatic. This win, a month after his team was so listless in a 1-0 home loss to LA, cements the Red Bulls as a legitimate contender.