When Mother Nature saw fit to postpone the late August visit of the Los Angeles Galaxy to Red Bull Arena, it may have been a blessing in disguise for the New York Red Bulls. Mired in a winless funk that extended back to early July, New York was desperately short of confidence, while the Galaxy were riding a sugar rush, having just signed designated player Robbie Keane. The other side of the coin, of course, is that by putting off one of the more difficult matches of the season, the Red Bulls would be forced to reckon with the odds-on Supporters' Shield favorites at the sharp end of the season, when they needed points most. That day of reckoning has now arrived, as David Beckham and company visit Harrison for a rare Tuesday night game.
None of the three matches remaining on New York's schedule could be called "easy" (let's face it - no game is for this team), but tonight's matchup against the league leaders is the most difficult of the bunch. Los Angeles has lost just three times this season. No other club has even come close to matching the consistency off Bruce Arena's Galaxy, with Western Conference powerhouses such as FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake struggling at various times throughout the year and the Eastern Conference failing to provide even a single club that can be counted among the league's best.
Los Angeles boasts the league's stingiest defense, having allowed just 23 goals in 31 games. Landon Donovan is the only player on the team to have reached double digits in goals (no other Galaxy player is even close), but with contributions from the likes of Chad Barrett, Juninho and former Red Bull Mike Magee - coupled with the steady goalkeeping of Donovan Ricketts and Josh Saunders - they haven't needed to be an offensive juggernaut. Eight of their league victories have been 1-0 results, and they've only scored more than three goals once this season, against Sporting Kansas City, way back in May. Los Angeles is also coming off a confidence-boosting 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake.
The Red Bulls will need to find a way to crack the Galaxy's safe if they want to continue their playoff push, while doing a much better job of shoring things up at the back. The goal New York surrendered in Toronto was a worrying sign that the defensive issues that have plagued the team all season long are nowhere close to being a thing of the past. Moreover, the lazy display put in by Rafael Marquez, when his heart and desire were being called into question, has to be of concern to Hans Backe. Can he afford to give Marquez another 90 minutes in a massive game when the Mexican has proven that he doesn't want to be here? Given the gravity of the match - and the Red Bulls' marketing imperatives - its seems certain that Marquez will start in midfield again. But if he gives the kind of half-hearted effort he gave in Toronto, Beckham and company will have a field day.
The good news for the Red Bulls is that the Galaxy will be arriving in New Jersey a bit threadbare. Both Donovan (quad strain) and Robbie Keane, who has left the team early to join Ireland for Euro 2012 qualifying, will miss Tuesday's match. Both would likely have started in August had Hurricane Irene not intervened. Of course, Bruce Arena has the luxury of resting players and allowing one of his superstars to depart early on international duty, knowing that a playoff spot, home field advantage and the Supporters' Shield are under no real threat. The same cannot be said of Backe, who needs his first choice XI to recover quickly from the Toronto match. From a matchup standpoint, the stars seem to be aligning for New York just when they need it most, but this is a team that has repeatedly failed to deliver when presented with golden opportunities.
The match will be shown nationally on ESPN2, kicking off at 8PM ET. We will have a live match thread running here at Once a Metro for those - like me - who cannot get out to the stadium.