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Sunday, May 8, 2011
N.Y. vs. L.A. lives up to the hype

By Jeff Carlisle
ESPN.com

Often, a soccer game's entertainment value is inversely proportional to the hype. MLS can thank the soccer gods, then, that Saturday's 1-1 tie between the Los Angeles Galaxy and the New York Red Bulls bucked that stereotype.

For sure, the liveliest moments took place in a largely wide-open first half that saw the Red Bulls' Thierry Henry and the Galaxy's Landon Donovan trade goals. The second 45 minutes, while generating some moments of drama, was more chess match than track meet. But overall, the game was good value, and MLS can be pleased that the league's biggest stars were at the center of the game's crucial moments.

But that was by no means the only article of faith to be tested at the Home Depot Center. Over the last few weeks, New York's possession game has been operating at peak efficiency and looked incapable of being broken. Yet the Galaxy showed the rest of MLS that by picking and choosing its spots to apply high pressure, a team could do plenty to disrupt the way New York likes to exit out of the back. Combine that approach with some shaky defending by the Red Bulls on set pieces, as well as a complete inability to account for the whereabouts of Galaxy midfielder David Beckham, and Los Angeles generated enough chances to have seized control by halftime.

The fact that the Galaxy didn't owed itself to the play of oft-maligned goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul. Coundoul is viewed as the weakest link in the Red Bulls lineup, but on Saturday he kept his side in the game. Following Henry's fourth-minute opener, Coundoul delivered three excellent saves inside of the first 15 minutes, and when he stuffed a point-blank effort from Galaxy forward Chad Barrett in the 40th minute, it looked like it was going to be one of those frustrating nights for Los Angeles. That is, until Donovan powered home a header from a Beckham corner kick just a minute later.

Of course, one team's great goalkeeping is another's profligate finishing, and the Galaxy generated more than a few head-in-their-hands moments. The most egregious occurred two minutes before halftime, when Beckham once again found himself with a criminal amount of time and space and released Donovan on a clear breakaway. The U.S. international easily evaded Coundoul's ill-advised challenge outside the box -- the keeper's only mistake on the night -- but was much too casual with his finish, allowing Tim Ream to scurry back and clear his slow roller right off the goal line.

But given the way Donovan has been banging in the goals over the past month, there aren't too many concerns about his level of play at the moment. The same can't be said about L.A. forwards Chad Barrett and Juan Pablo Angel. Granted, Barrett has never been among the league's more clinical finishers, a fact reflected by his 36 goals in 157 career appearances. But the slump Angel finds himself in has to be borderline alarming for the Galaxy. After all, this is the player tasked with picking up most of the slack for the 17 goals scored last year by the departed Edson Buddle. And while Angel hasn't always gotten the quality of service he's needed this season, that wasn't a problem on this night, as Beckham and even Barrett set up the Colombian with some clear chances. It leaves one to wonder when -- or if -- the goals will arrive for the 35-year-old.

New York has its share of questions, too. While the team missed injured midfielder Teemu Tainio, the entire midfield struggled to apply pressure to its L.A. counterparts for most of the night, allowing Beckham to operate unhindered. New York created some chances of its own, but it wasn't until an hour had gone by that the Red Bulls managed to ratchet down the tempo and make life for Beckham and his midfield running mate Juninho more difficult.

In matches where New York's possession game is in full flow, this weakness likely won't be exposed. But Saturday showed that the Red Bulls won't always be able to outplay their opponents, and there will be moments when their defensive pressure will need to be sharper to reassert their grip on a match.

The two teams meet again on Aug. 28 at Red Bull Arena. Given what transpired on Saturday, it's probably not too early to let the hype begin to build yet again.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.