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Thursday, November 3, 2011
GALAXY: 3 reasons L.A. is moving on

By Scott French

Mike Magee
The Galaxy's Mike Magee celebrates his first-half goal off a corner kick from David Beckham.

CARSON -- The Galaxy is back in the Western Conference final, third year in a row, and it didn't come easy.

They conceded a fourth-minute goal to Luke Rodgers, rallied to tie -- and go ahead on aggregate -- on Mike Magee's second goal of the first-round playoff series, then put New York away when Landon Donovan converted from the spot with 16 minutes (plus stoppage) to go.

Here are three big reasons the Galaxy prevailed Thursday night, notching a 3-1 aggregate victory over the Red Bulls to advance to Sunday evening's Western Conference final against Real Salt Lake.

1. TAINIO'S DEPARTURE

The Red Bulls already were missing one first-choice central midfielder, with Rafa Marquez out following his postgame meltdown in the first leg brought a red card and a suspension that's been extended to three games.

When Teemu Tainio, Marquez's partner in the middle, limped off in the 16th minute because of a tight hamstring, the Red Bulls were done. Even if they didn't know it yet.

Tainio's intelligence, ability to set an attacking foundation and keep the ball moving, and defensive acumen has been critical for New York this season, and they lost control of midfield once he was gone.

2. BECKHAM'S DESIRE

As good as David Beckham was in Sunday's 1-0 first-leg victory at Red Bull Arena, he was better Thursday night, pulling the Galaxy up by their scruff and carrying them -- willing them -- to victory.

The Red Bulls did a nice job limiting the effectiveness of his long passes, as they did after he connected with Magee for the lone goal in New Jersey, but they allowed him too many set pieces from dangerous ground -- and they couldn't match his hustle in midfield.

Both goals were Beckham's: He delivered a perfect corner kick for Magee to nod home in the 42nd minute and drew the penalty kick, from Roy Miller's attack, that Donovan converted in the 74th minute to secure the victory.

At one point in the first half, it looked as if Beckham might have to leave the field. He wrenched his back making an acrobatic leap to clear a ball, landed badly, was holding his head, then lay on the turf. Galaxy coach Bruce Arena had Michael Stephens up and ready to come on, but Beckham wasn't going to have any of that. He regained his senses, headed back on the field, and lifted his game the rest of the way. It was one of his finest matches in a season full of them.

3. ADJUSTMENTS

Like him or not, Arena is the best coach in American soccer, and his and his staff's adjustments throughout Thursday's match were masterful.

Thierry Henry was picking apart the Galaxy defense at the start, sending in superb balls for Rodgers, who put the chance away, and Joel Lindpere, who couldn't get off a shot. L.A. closed the passing lanes, stepped up to pressure Henry when he had the ball, and New York was starved for chances most of the rest of the way.

When Tainio departed, they used a short-passing game -- in great contrast to New York's panicky attempts to go for everything at once -- to open space in midfield and into the final third, again using defensive pressure to keep the Red Bulls occupied. It forced New York to chase and tire, and L.A. was in command once Magee nodded home Beckham's corner.

The other big adjustment came early, with Arena's decision to use Chris Birchall, a blue-collar midfielder who gives everything all the time, in place of suspended Juninho.

The smart money was that the end-of-game red cards to Marquez and Juninho would help New York, that Dax McCarty could do the job for New York but that L.A., and Beckham, would struggle without Juninho around. Hardly. Once Birchall found his footing, he was a force, cleaning up trouble in front of the backline and surging forward to join in the attack.