The Los Angeles Galaxy have not lost a home match at the Home Depot Center since the MLS Playoffs last year, so the visiting New York Red Bulls will have to do something special to overcome a 1-0 deficit in their home-and-away Western Conference Semifinal matchup.
New York will look to continue to build upon a solid second half performance against the Galaxy on Sunday where numerous chances were missed or stopped by L.A. goalkeeper Josh Saunders. With the post-match fracas resulting in suspensions for Rafa Marquez and Galaxy midfielder Juninho, both Hans Backe and Bruce Arena will have to make adjustments to their lineups on Thursday.
Fortunately for New York, Jan Gunnar Solli will be available after serving a one-game suspension for a red card picked up last week against FC Dallas. It's likely that Backe will slot in midfielder Dax McCarty for Marquez, but a Mehdi Ballouchy start is not outside the realm of possibility after being the first substitution made in New York's last two matches, and he also started and went the full ninety in New York's last trip to the Home Depot Center to face the Galaxy back in May.
The rest of the lineup should be the same that Backe has used in New York's first two playoff matchups, and there is no reason to expect a full bench since Backe has dressed less players than he is allowed in both games. Expected subs are Bouna Coundoul, Carlos Mendez, Juan Agudelo, Stephane Auvray, and Mehdi Ballouchy/Dax McCarty depending on who starts in midfield.
Los Angeles has a much larger gap to fill without their 22-year-old Brazilian midfielder. Juninho has quickly developed into one of the Galaxy's key players in just his second season on a star-studded roster, and his ability to shoot on goal from distance fits perfectly into the Galaxy's attack. As opposing midfielders and defenders concentrate on closing down David Beckham and defending crosses into the box, Juninho is freed up to provide support on the outside or float just above the penalty area to receive a pass in a dangerous location if unmarked or collect rebounded shots or cleared crosses.
Fortunately for the Galaxy, Landon Donovan and Beckham have both showed a willingness to get back on defense and win back possession throughout the season, and while likely midfield replacement Chris Birchall does not have the same creativity or attacking prowess as Juninho, he will help the Galaxy try to keep New York off the scoreboard. In addition, defenders Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza were fantastic on Sunday, and if they put in a similarly nearly flawless performance, New York will be hard-pressed to find the back of the net.
Since Hans Backe and Erik Soler have been at the helm for the Red Bulls, New York is 1-0-1 playing away at the Galaxy and 2-2-1 overall. So despite L.A. having a lot of success at home, the Red Bulls have fared relatively well at the Home Depot Center under Backe. Nothing outside of a win Thursday night, however, will keep New York's 2011 season alive.
Besides an 11 PM EST Kickoff time and contractually mandated reduced capacity restrictions at the Home Depot Center, Major League Soccer should be pleased with one of the most high-profile playoff matches in league history.
Can New York upset the top seeded team in the playoffs? What's your prediction for the match? Let us know in the comments below.