New York Soccer: A.J. DeLaGarza
November, 3, 2011
By Matthew Artus | ESPNNewYork.com
Both the Red Bulls and Galaxy have not hesitated to put down their opponents ahead of their playoff clash on Thursday, but neither side can win on words alone.
The war of a million words will end with a single match on Thursday evening as the New York Red Bulls pay a visit to the Home Depot Center to face the Los Angeles Galaxy (11 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPN Deportes) in the second leg of the MLS Playoffs Western Conference Semifinal round.
L.A. claimed a 1-0 victory in the contentious first leg at Red Bull Arena on Sunday afternoon courtesy of a Mike Magee volley that caught the Red Bulls' defense on its heels. However, that early strike did nothing to assuage tempers as the match concluded with a brawl near center circle that left RBNY center back Stephen Keel on the ground while teammate Rafael Marquez and Galaxy midfielder Juninho received red cards for their roles in the melee.
Magee's finish of a David Beckham lob pass means the Red Bulls will need to score no less than two goals to advance to the Western Conference Final round. The MLS Playoffs semifinal round's two-legged, home-and-home format is decided by goals scored on aggregate, meaning the winner is the team with the most goals combined after both legs. L.A's current 1-0 lead on aggregate means a 1-0 Red Bulls lead at the end of regulation on Thursday would send the match into extra time and a possible penalty shootout, while a draw at the end of regulation would let the Galaxy advance.
Both sides know which club awaits them with a win on Thursday night, as Real Salt Lake held on to a 3-2 win on aggregate over the Seattle Sounders on Wednesday night. RSL would host the Red Bulls next Sunday with a win, while the Claret-and-Cobalt would head to Los Angeles following a Galaxy victory by nature of L.A.'s home-field advantage resulting from their Supporters' Shield win.
Halfway House. To punch their ticket to Salt Lake City, New York needs to do what no MLS club has done this season -- defeat the Galaxy at the Home Depot Center. L.A. boasts an unbeaten 12-0-5 record at home that includes an eight-game winning streak in MLS regular season play dating back to July 4.
L.A.'s home-field advantage may feel diminished due to the building's location, though. The HDC's presence on Cal State Dominguez Hill's campus involves an agreement that caps attendance at 15,000 for Galaxy weeknight games to allow parking for CSUDH students and faculty. CSUDH and the Galaxy reached an agreement to bump up that cap to 20,000 for Thursday's semifinal, but that still guarantees approximately 7,000 seats empty at first kick.
Key Matchup: Marquez's Replacement vs. Gonzalez. NY coach Hans Backe has a decision to make in replacing Rafa Marquez in the midfield, as the much-maligned midfielder's red card triggered an automatic one-game suspension for tonight's match. Red Bulls supporters may waiver in their support of Marquez following his inconsistent play on the field and provocative statements off it, but Rafa's form has trended upward since being moved into a defensive midfielder role from his earlier positioning at Tim Ream's center back partner.
Backe's decision to go with Dax McCarty, Stephane Auvray, Mehdi Ballouchy, or another plan entirely gets added emphasis when recalling why New York struggled to build pressure in the attacking third: Galaxy center back and MLS Defender of the Year candidate Omar Gonzalez. Gonzalez seemingly broke down every attack on the middle, leading all players with nine intercepted balls and 14 cleared ones on Sunday according to the Opta Chalkboards.
New York will get some help on the wings with Jan Gunnar Solli returning from suspension, but that doesn't help establish any pressure in the middle on Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza. There may be a crack in the Galaxy defense with Juninho's absence, but that crack's only as wide as the distribution lanes created by Marquez's replacement.
Temper, Temper. The war of words between New York and Los Angeles dates back to Landon Donovan's comments about Luke Rodgers following the two sides' 1-1 draw in May. Rodgers citied Donovan's constant chirping with the referees, which provoked Donovan to respond "Who is Luke Rogers?" (sic) via Twitter.
It seemingly has heated up in recent days with Todd Dunivant saying to ESPNLosAngeles that he "(doesn't) think anyone fears the Red Bulls" and Donovan describing the Red Bulls as a "disgraceful" team of "cheap shot" artists.
New York returned in kind, with Backe describing his side as "on another level" and Rodgers citing Sunday's in-game taunts of "You're in my country now" from Galaxy 'keeper Josh Saunders during a Wednesday conference call as evidence that "that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones."
The final word will come with the referee's final whistle, but it remains to be seen if either side's tough talk will tilt Thursday's result in anyone's favor -- or distract them from a favorable result.
Foul Play. Donovan made waves by describing the Red Bulls as cheap, but the question unasked is: Does he have a point?
Since there's no way to measure intangibles like a little Thierry Henry bump in the run of play or an errant Joel Lindpere elbow in the box, there's no exact way to measure.
That said, there was a differential of three fouls per 90 minutes in the Galaxy's favor at the end of the MLS regular season. L.A. finished with a +1.6 foul differential, which means they suffered an average of 1.6 fouls per game more than they committed. New York, on the other hand, finished with the second-worst foul differential at -1.7 fouls per 90 minutes, which means they commit 1.7 more fouls than they suffer per game on average.
Attacking sides tend to draw more fouls while defensive ones tend to commit them, meaning the Red Bulls will need to remain disciplined to ensure Beckham doesn't wind up with any more free kicks than he needs on Thursday night.
Sustained Stampede. Tonight's first whistle will commence New York's fourth match in 14 days and third in three different cities over the past week. Backe indicated in an earlier conference call that he intends to pick his best 11 to start regardless of rest, but he'll also need to be leery of nagging injuries that have plagued the likes of Henry, Rodgers, and Teemu Tainio among others.
The Red Bulls coach doesn't like to use all of his substitutes, which continues to leave change-of-pace players like Ballouchy and Juan Agudelo on his bench. If endurance becomes an issue for a busy Red Bulls side -- especially in a deciding match that could go to extra time or penalty kicks -- who, if anyone, will Backe call upon to provide for a late-game burst?
October, 5, 2011
By Matthew Artus | ESPNNewYork.com
The reports of the death of the Red Bulls are greatly exaggerated.
New York's playoff hopes are alive and well following a solid 2-0 win on Tuesday evening at Red Bull Arena against a Los Angeles Galaxy side missing a few key players. Luke Rodgers opened the scoring for the Red Bulls in the 32nd minute by finishing a rebound created by Galaxy 'keeper Donovan Ricketts with an astute volley at the six-yard-box.
Thierry Henry provided an insurance goal in the 59th minute by picking up a Rafael Marquez lob pass in stride and outpacing Galaxy defender A.J. DeLaGarza en route to an easy chip shot over a diving Ricketts.
With the win, the Red Bulls (9-7-16, 43 pts) remain in firm control of their playoff destiny as they kept pace with the Houston Dynamo (10-9-13, 43 pts) and Portland Timbers (11-13-7, 40 pts) for the final wild card berth heading into the international break. D.C. United (9-10-11, 38 pts) can still overtake the fourth-place Red Bulls club in the standings by virtue of their game in hand, but New York's playoff standing remains secure due to their favorable tiebreakers over Houston and Portland.
New York also has an opportunity to overtake the Columbus Crew (12-12-8, 44 pts) for the final Eastern Conference automatic berth, but, like with D.C. United, will need some outside help to make that happen.
"It’s still very, very tight," said Red Bulls coach Hans Backe. "But this win today, it has definitely set us up with great possibility to play head-to-head with Kansas City and Philadelphia. But if we lose these games, we can be out of the playoffs. With the way we performed today, it reminds me a little bit of the beginning of the season. Not giving away anything and the willingness to defend with hard work. If we are in the playoffs, I think we would definitely be a threat."
Notable No-Shows. Not to take anything away from a clear win over a Galaxy side in position to clinch the Supporters' Shield any day now, but the missing stars on the visiting side may have tempered the capabilities of the best club in MLS by points. Galaxy coach Bruce Arena knew before kick off he'd be without Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, and Chris Birchall due to injury and international commitments, but also elected to start Jamaican 'keeper Donovan Ricketts over Josh Saunders in net.
Ricketts only surrendered the starting job due to an injury earlier this season, but had not started a match for L.A. since September 9 against the Colorado Rapids -- whereas Saunders has minded the net for every minute in between. Saunders likely needed the break, but that fatigue plagued more than just Ricketts's performance in Arena's eyes.
"It wasn’t our best night," said Arena. "I think we looked like a tired team. Tonight is a culmination of a lot of games over a short period of time, and it showed."
Play of the Game: Henry's Goal. It wasn't on par with the MLS Goal of the Week-caliber strike he completed against Toronto FC last weekend, but Henry's goal did more than just lift the French striker into a tie with D.C. United midfielder Dwayne De Rosario for the Golden Boot. It added another insurance goal -- a luxury for a Red Bulls attack that's struggled to put opponents to bed all season.
Henry's finish becomes doubly significant as it also came about from the foot of Marquez, who has earned the ire of Red Bulls supporters in recent days following his less-than-flattering appraisal of his teammates. Marquez, who started in the midfield once again, played as complete a game as anyone's seen since returning from a hamstring injury that chased him out of the CONCACAF Gold Cup Final in June. The pass, like many of his others on the evening, was crisp and perfectly timed -- exactly the kind of service which leaves Henry free to finish without needing to muster some fancy footwork to get behind the opposing back line.
Marquez to Henry -- It's the combination that sporting director Erik Solér had Red Bulls supporters dreaming about when New York acquired the two designated players last season, and the one they could use most as it prepares for the final playoff push.
German Efficency. After an ignominious debut that left supporters struggling with the decision to use a designated player spot on a goalkeeper, German shot stopper Frank Rost has removed all doubt about his capabilities following his third clean sheet in five matches. That Rost has done it at all is impressive, but that he's now kept playoff-caliber opponents scoreless twice in nine days indicates the Red Bulls' third designated player is rolling at the right time.
Plus 11. That's the interception differential from Tuesday and in the Red Bulls's favor. New York picked off more balls than the Galaxy and -- as the Opta Chalkboards point out -- did so across the width of the pitch and along the wings where Donovan usually plies his trade, whereas L.A. only managed to intercept passes down the middle of the field.
Tim Ream led the way with seven intercepted balls, with fellow center back Stephen Keel and left back Roy Miller chipping in five apiece for a New York side in which every starter not named Henry, Rodgers, or Rost picked off at least one ball.
"I felt pretty comfortable the last couple of starts," said Ream. "It’s a better feeling for the guy next to you and communication has been good, I think it’s just been the heart and the fight that everybody has shown has definitely rubbed off on everybody. I think (I should) be able to feel more comfortable playing that style and playing with more effort and more passion."
Ready to Rumble. For a New York side that's struggled to string two wins together in the same month, it's a night-and-day difference to suddenly start winning three of their last five matches. Their midseason form raised the eyebrows of league pundits everywhere about the club's potential to become the biggest albatross in MLS history, but Backe remains optimistic that the kinds of troubles that have plagued the Red Bulls this season will work themselves out in the end.
"These kinds of games take care of themselves," said Backe. "Every time you play the big guns, you don’t need any right way to motivate the players in any different or special style. It takes care of itself. We will see when we go on the road to Kansas City, if we can stay on the same level. Normally, I would analyze after our 34 games or after the playoffs. I am quite sure on what has gone wrong after the first seven games. But it seems that we are back now."
New York now gets an 11-day break to respect international competition before making their inaugural visit to Livestrong Sporting Park for a date with Eastern Conference rival Sporting Kansas City on Saturday, October 15. First kick is scheduled for 4:00 p.m.
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