A return to the MLS semifinals for the Red Bulls means a return engagement against the Supporters Shield-winning Los Angeles Galaxy side that commences Sunday afternoon at Red Bull Arena (3 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPN Deportes). Sunday’s contest represents the first leg of a home-and-home series in which the club scoring more goals on aggregate through both legs will be declared the winner.
New York finished their regular season encounters against the Galaxy with a feat few MLS sides can match -- a winning record. Thierry Henry had the first and last word on the regular season scoresheets against L.A., as the French striker netted an early go-ahead goal in a 1-1 draw at the Home Depot Center last May as well as the insurance goal in a 2-0 win against a depleted Galaxy side on Oct. 4.
Henry also factored favorably on both sides of the ball in his MLS playoffs debut as New York collected a 2-0 win over FC Dallas at Pizza Hut Park last Wednesday. The Red Bulls' captain supported a second-half strike by Joel Lindpere with a goal of his own in stoppage time, but made his mark on the match by keeping FCD midfielder Daniel Hernandez in check as the home side struggled to finish any of its numerous scoring chances.
Los Angeles arrives rested and relaxed for Sunday’s contest by virtue of the Round of 16 bye awarded to the Supporters Shield winner. The Galaxy clinched the league’s best record shortly after their loss to the Red Bulls a few weeks ago, which allowed L.A. head coach Bruce Arena to rest playmakers Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane down the stretch.
Nothing to Fear. Prognosticators may continue to pick the Red Bulls as the best MLS club on paper, but their midseason struggles and league-leading draws left little to intimidate clubs across the league. Galaxy defender Todd Dunivant admitted as much.
“I don’t think anyone fears New York, and we would love that [matchup],” the former Red Bull said to ESPNLosAngeles.com.
New York is rolling with five wins in their last seven matches, but their midseason reputation of futility still precedes them.
Key Matchup: Beckham vs. Ream. Even with Donovan and Keane under wraps in recent weeks, the Galaxy attack kept rolling along with David Beckham leading the charge. Beckham, with a team-leading 15 assists in what has been his best MLS season, continues to execute his signature free kicks and passing distribution with ease to provide service to an attack that largely revolves around the English midfielder.
Since Henry can’t man-mark his longtime rival as he did against FCD’s Hernandez and expect to score, someone will need to put himself on the receiving end of Beckham’s lob passes. That defensive response will by led by Tim Ream, the young Red Bulls defender struggling to reestablish his confidence on the pitch. With Jan Gunnar Solli suspended, Rafael Marquez playing in the midfield, and Stephen Keel still adjusting to life as a starter, that leaves Ream as the leader in the middle of the Red Bulls’ back four and with a mandate to get in the way of any Galaxy pressure up top while not giving away the ball in his own penalty area.
The Beckham Experiment may seek an MLS Cup win as success, but the development of Ream revolves around the Red Bulls putting their promising center back in position to play shutdown defense against anyone -- even a legendary midfielder like Becks.
Familiar Faces. Red Bulls coach Hans Backe confirmed during a conference call on Friday that he expect to make few personnel changes for his club’s clash with the Galaxy. He confirmed that Carlos Mendes will fill in at right back for Solli and that he brought a short bench to Dallas due to limited space on the club’s charter flight, but otherwise expects to keep the starting XI intact.
If New York intends to reach the Western Conference Final round, that means Backe’s side will need to leg out three playoff matches in eight days.
Luke Good. One other familiar face that may take the pitch on Sunday is Luke Rodgers, who missed the do-or-die match against FC Dallas due to injury. Backe indicated that he intends to pick Rodgers unless the English striker is physically incapacitated, which would likely move Dane Richards back to his regular spot on the right wing. New York didn’t miss their freshman forward in their win over FCD, but their offense always appears more open with him than without him.
Complete 180. A win on Sunday may boost morale for the Red Bulls, but it still leaves them with 90 minutes to play at the Home Depot Center later this week. New York can only advance to the Western Conference Final by outscoring the Galaxy on aggregate -- meaning whatever happens on Sunday may not be enough to hold one of the most prolific attacks in league history.
So while Henry, Rodgers, and the Red Bulls attack look to get behind Dunivant, Omar Gonzalez, the the Galaxy back line, they need to remain disciplined on both sides of the ball and not let the Galaxy’s offense keep pace. Sunday is only the first half of this story -- there will still be 90 minutes left to play after the whistle.