Landon Donovan and Thierry Henry will be front and center for one of the most intriguing and high-profile playoff match-ups in MLS history.
snow rain wintry mix continues to fall on the East Coast, we swapped three questions ahead of the first leg of the MLS Western Conference Semifinal matchup between the New York Red Bulls and the Los Angeles Galaxy with LAG Confidential.
The two teams tied 1-1 in their first matchup at the Home Depot Center back in May, which despite the 11 PM EST kickoff time was one of the most entertaining matches of the season, and New York followed with a 2-0 win at home over the Galaxy on October 6.
For a better sense of what to expect in this home-and-away playoff series against the MLS Supporters' Shield winner, check out some thoughts from LAG Confidential below, including what may induce a shoe being thrown in the near future or possible capoeira moves during one of the matches.
1) OAM: Does it look like Robbie Keane will be back from injury in time for the playoffs? How does Bruce Arena alter his approach with or without his international striker?
The word from London this morning was that Robbie Keane traveled with the LA Galaxy, and I trust Ian Darke as a source of soccer news (seriously, I found out Keane traveled with the team while watching Chelsea host Arsenal this morning). The word from Galaxy camp back in Carson is that he practiced with the A squad all week. I don't expect Keane to start, that's a lot to ask of a man coming back from injury, but I expect if Bruce needs a goal in the last half hour, he'll bring on Keane.
Without Keane, Bruce will play it like that opening round LA-Seattle match last year that everyone hated. This time the tables are reversed, with the Galaxy playing six more matches than the Red Bulls and having to travel across the country. Everyone except the lone striker should be thinking defense first: park the bus, and make New York do something special to get a goal. Then all the Galaxy need is for Edson Buddle to bounce one off the turf made of rubber for a 50-yard strike. What's that now? Damn, strike that plan.
2) OAM: One storyline that's bound to get a lot of attention is which young defender will better hold down their respective back line: Tim Ream or Omar Gonzalez? We're pretty familiar with Ream's sophomore slump season, while Gonzalez is widely considered to be a frontrunner for MLS Defender of the Year. What do you see as Gonzalez's strengths and weaknesses heading into the playoffs?
Omar Gonzalez is tall. On the pitch, he's just really tall. Which is to say, he has excellent field vision. He sees where the play is coming from and always has the back line in the right position. Those long legs are also excellent low-ball blockers, and help him to keep pace with shorter guys who might have a quicker step but a shorter stride.
Because he's tall, Omar is the rare defender with a number of goals to his credit. Goals win awards, that's a fairly known concept. I think both the Galaxy's amazing defensive record with Gonzalez the last few years and his ability to score goals make him stand out in a position that's often hard to quantify.
Can I say, as someone who also pays close attention to the National Team, that if Tim Ream gets called up instead of Omar one more time, I will throw a shoe.
3) OAM: Out of 34 league matches played, the three best known Galaxy players (Donovan, Beckham, and Keane) only played 23, 26, and 4 matches respectively. Besides the big three, which Galaxy players were most critical to L.A. having the best record in Major League Soccer in 2011?
Chad Barrett and Juninho. Chad Barrett doesn't get a lot of credit because he's more of an athlete than a soccer player. Watching him miss opportunity after opportunity against Chivas USA was painful to watch, but he's been the Galaxy's most consistent goal scorer. Landon Donovan stepped up his offensive game for a few months when it was clear Juan Pablo Angel (and thanks for him BTW) was a dud, then promptly shut it down again when Robbie Keane was brought over. Barrett was the Galaxy's #2 goalscorer after Donovan. He's a local, he's a good story, and he's helped carry this team.
Juninho is the other player I'd point to. Since coming over on loan, he's dazzled Galaxy fans with his long strikes, and he's always in the right position to make a play. He's aggressive when it comes to keeping the ball in the attacking third, and after he scores goals he does capoeira moves. He's the whole package!
On to LAG Confidential's questions for Once a Metro:
1) LAG: This game is going to be billed as Beckham vs. Henry, but they are responsible for two separate phases of the match. More accurately it's Henry vs. Gonzalez, but whose responsibility is it going to be to try and shut down the Beckham cross?
The Red Bulls have struggled to defend on set pieces this season, so the real key will be for their midfield to close down on Beckham and limit his space to operate in without committing fouls in dangerous positions. Center backs Tim Ream and Stephen Keel will also need to do better on their clearances - each made mistakes that could have cost New York in their first playoff win against FC Dallas.
2) LAG: When the Carlos Tevez scandal broke, Rafa Marquez started to melt down; drawing some comparisons in the media. Where is his head right now?
Marquez seems to have improved since letting off some steam by publicly complaining about the caliber of defenders on the squad. After a one-game suspension for his comments, he was moved from central defense into the midfield where he played in 2010. He looked a bit lost in his first match back, but Red Bulls manager Hans Backe kept with his decision and Marquez has grown into the role nicely. His passing and positioning have helped New York in the area that helped them start the season so well: controlling possession.
Some observers are still skeptical of Marquez's commitment to the club, however, and want to see the same energy and fire that he plays with when he wears the captain's armband for Mexico.
3) LAG: During the recent New York v. Philadelphia match, Union fans unveiled a tifo that read: "You will never get this," referring to the MLS Cup. Were NY to hoist this year's cup, they'd do it as a 10 seed, and they'd come out of the Western Conference. How are the Red Bulls simultaneous bad enough to be the 10 seed but good enough to be a legit sleeper pick?
The Red Bulls didn't have the roster depth to contend for the Supporters' Shield this season and were lucky to make the playoffs despite a miserable stretch only winning three league matches from May through September. Missing players for international call-ups and injuries really hurt New York's personnel strategy of having around a dozen quality players and then filling the rest of the roster out with young developmental players and prospects.
So how is New York a legitimate sleeper-pick to win MLS Cup? If they stay injury free and don't pick up unnecessary suspensions for seeing red or accumulating yellow cards (too late, Jan Gunnar Solli), they have one of the best starting elevens in the league. When the team plays with urgency, they are capable of beating any team (even Arsenal!), and their ability to score goals when it matters is exactly what is needed to succeed in the MLS playoffs.
Special thanks to Josie at LAG Confidential for swapping questions - possibly her last three questions exchange of the 2011 season!