The Galaxy win the Supporter’s Shield, finish unbeaten at home during the course of the regular season, have an MLS best +20 goal differential and is the number one seed in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
Their “reward” for that success… a trip to New York.
Coming into the season, the Red Bulls were the odds on favorite to finish atop the Eastern Conference. Instead, they had to settle for the last of the four wild card berths, a spot that was not assured until the final weekend of the season when they knocked off Philadelphia. No team in this year’s postseason field is more of a wild card then the Red Bulls, creating a potentially tricky matchup for the Galaxy. Despite that, Bruce Arena’s team will need to concentrate on the task at hand on Sunday afternoon at Red Bull Arena.
What is it that makes the Red Bulls such a difficult opponent? In a single word… talent.
On paper this is the only team in the league that rivals LA with a mix of European and domestic talent. Thus the Red Bulls have the ability to turn it on and play quality soccer at any moment. Leading the charge will be the Frenchman, Thierry Henry, who scored in both of the regular season meetings between the Galaxy and Red Bulls. Henry has all the tools to keep defenders guessing what his next move will be. If LA can keep him quiet in the game, and I don’t just mean off the score sheet, they will likely have set themselves up fantastically heading into the second leg of the series at The Home Depot Center on Thursday night. Henry is one of the most difficult players in the league to defend, but, by no means is this too tall of a task for Omar Gonzalez and Co. to handle.
Like all quality teams, there are not too many vulnerable spots in the New York lineup. Fortunately for LA , there does appear to be one such spot as New York will be forced to play without right back Jan Gunnar Solli after the right back was sent off late in the Wild Card win over Dallas on Wednesday. Solli is not the Red Bulls’ best defender, but his absence will force Hans Backe to make adjustments. I expect Carlos Mendes to move into the back four, possibly alongside Tim Ream in central defense, moving Stephen Keel out to right back. Backe could also use Mendes at right back and leave his central pairing untouched. Keel and Ream were very good together in the game versus Dallas once they settled in after the opening 20 minutes.
The opening 15-20 minutes could be crucial in Sunday’s first leg. If LA can put New York under pressure from the start, just as FC Dallas did, they might be able to take an early lead away from home. The Red Bulls defense was shaky at the start of their Wild Card win over Dallas and they frankly were lucky to not concede a goal at Pizza Hut Park early on. If Landon Donovan is 100% healthy or close to it as he has stated he is, and can use his speed to run at the New York defense and the Galaxy might find the early goal that eluded FC Dallas.
Speaking of the Galaxy captain, I believe the he needs to get back to the aggressive, attacking mentality that he is known for. There was a point in the middle of the season when Donovan really got going and was consistently the most dangerous player on the field, regardless of who LA was facing. However, injuries and fatigue seemed to derail that attitude a bit over the final six weeks of the season. The hope for Galaxy fans is that Donovan has had enough time to heal and feels fresh for the MLS Cup Playoff run. Donovan told the media this past week that he “feels as good as he has felt all year”, a statement that should bring big grins to the faces of Galaxy fans and set fear into the hearts of opponents. His play on Sunday should confirm or contrast that statement.
The “X-factor” for this series will be whether or not Robbie Keane can contribute. Keane has been suffering from an adductor strain that has limited his contributions for the last month in both the league and the Champions League. Like Landon Donovan, the hope is that the time off has at least helped Keane get back to where he can play for 60 minutes or so. Keane’s presence will force the Red Bull’s defense to make sure it is aware of his positioning on the field and that will open up more space for Chad Barrett. As we all know, Barrett is in form right now having tallied a goal or an assist in five of the final six games of the regular season, and he could be essential to his team’s playoff hopes.
It is important to remember that this is a two-game aggregate series with New York. So a draw this weekend in New York will suit the Galaxy just fine. But just as LA did a year ago in this exact same position against Seattle, a win would give LA a bit of extra breathing room upon returning home for the second leg. I expect Bruce Arena to have his side ready to play, and look sharp in the opening minutes of the match. It is New York that will have to make the adjustments, and hopefully a lot of them in the opening 20 minutes of the match.