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Week 29: LA Galaxy 4 - 0 New York Red Bulls

The ninth loss of RBNY's 2014 regular season wasn't the least expected or the hardest to take - but it was pretty bad...

Jeff Gross

First things first: the result didn't matter.

Not for the New York Red Bulls, for whom - we believe - the primary goal of this season is to make the playoffs. Indeed, after the team's minor key exit from CONCACAF Champions League, making the playoffs (and...no, one step at a time) is the only remaining goal of the season. This will almost certainly be achieved if the Red Bulls win each of their remaining home games: against Houston Dynamo on October 4th; against Toronto FC on October 11th; against Columbus Crew on October 19th.

Win those three games, and RBNY will have 50 points. Beating Houston would cap the Dynamo's maximum possible points total from its remaining games at 48 points. Beating Columbus wouldn't necessarily put the Crew in any sort of trouble, since three wins from its last four games would be 52 points - but that would involve beating Philly twice, eliminating the Union as a competitor for RBNY's points total. And if Philadelphia wins all the matches it has left - it will have beaten Columbus twice, knocking the Crew out of the race to 50.

Toronto could lose to RBNY and still get to 52 points. So the Red Bulls aren't guaranteed a playoff spot if they win their remaining home games; it's just very likely, since TFC and either Columbus or Philly would need to win all their other matches to get more than 50 points. (And RBNY could still make the playoffs by beating Sporting Kansas City.)

So this result didn't break RBNY's playoff ambitions. Nor would a win or draw have clinched anything: the team would still have needed at least another couple of wins against the cluster of Eastern Conference rivals lying ahead in the schedule. Indeed, since Houston, Toronto and Columbus have the potential to get by RBNY in the standings if they win out, those matches probably need to be won as much for the Red Bulls to deprive rivals of points as to gain them for themselves.

Nor, perhaps, should too much be read into the manner of the result. Yes, LA Galaxy thrashed the Red Bulls. Yes, this was the biggest defeat RBNY has endured so far this season: the team has shipped four goals (to Vancouver) and five (to Chicago), but also managed to score.

Losing by four goals is as bad as it has been in 2014 for RBNY. But there are no shortage of excuses, and those excuses are valid: Ambroise Oyongo and Lloyd Sam, important contributors of both speed and creativity to the attack, were injured; those injuries were symptomatic of the lack of recovery time inherent in playing seven games in 23 days; the majority of the squad had been traveling since Tuesday - to El Salvador for Wednesday's CONCACAF Champions League match against CD FAS, then to LA to prepare for this game.

The team was tired, beat up, well out of its comfort zone with regard to training routines.

Nor should the simple fact the game was on the road be ignored. Even the best MLS teams struggle away from home. Seattle has lost its last two road games (including one to RBNY); LA has two points from its last two trips out of Carson; D.C. United has one point to show for its last pair of away matches: that is three points from their last six road games for the top three teams in the Supporters' Shield race.

The Red Bulls have one point from the last two they've played away from home, so they're keeping pace with the league leaders in that regard.

No reason to panic over this loss. Any more than the Sounders should have panicked about losing to RBNY in week 28 (4-1), or to in Dallas (3-1) in mid-week 29 (Seattle bounced back at home to beat Chivas USA4-2, this round); any more than DC needed to panic over losing 4-1 to the Galaxy in LA on August 27 (DCU promptly returned to form with a 2-0 win over RBNY on August 31); certainly no more than LA needed to fret over its 4-1 loss in Columbus on August 16 (the Galaxy hasn't lost since).

It's the best team that we faced all year, by a long shot -Mike Petke on LA Galaxy (empireofsoccer.com)

Also, of course, LA Galaxy is a very good team, playing very well.

A player like Robbie Keane is a threat to score from pretty much anywhere - as he demonstrated in the 12th minute with a remarkable chip to the far corner. He might have intended a cross rather than a shot, but that is irrelevant - he meant to get the ball over Luis Robles and as close to the vacant far post (where Landon Donovan was lurking) as possible. He did so, impeccably.

Donovan made his presence felt repeatedly in this match. He tortured Chris Duvall all the way to the 60th minute, when Mike Petke subbed the rookie right back for Richard Eckersley. Duvall isn't the first defender to have struggled to contain Donovan, and will surely be better for the experience once the bruises to his ego subside. But that may take a while. The memory of LD's 50th minute goal will sting for some time: Donovan took advantage of a poor first touch and slow recovery from Duvall to steal the ball and lash it past Robles.

Rookies make rookie mistakes. Duvall will hopefully add that to the list of things not to be done again and move on with his career.

He used to be, I thought, purely a goal scorer. He's a much better creator now. -Bruce Arena on Landon Donovan (lagalaxy.com)

Donovan has four games left to finalize his MLS regular-season legacy, and the Red Bulls helped him out tremendously. By the end of the game, LD had a share of the league's all-time assist record.

He got career assist #133 on Keane's goal; #134 came in the 69th minute: he played pivot for Gyasi Zardes, who did very well to dribble out of an unpromising position - isolated on the byline, well covered by Roy Miller - and get himself into the box for a shot on goal that he threaded through Jamison Olave's legs and beyond a flailing Robles.

Finally, #135 - the record-equalling assist - arrived in the 82nd minute: Landon punted a long ball over the top of a tiring RBNY defense, and let Robbie Keane chase it down. It probably ought not to be counted as a goal assisted by Donovan (technically, Robles saved the first shot; Keane knocked in his own rebound) - but few will begrudge LD the record when he breaks it, and one cannot argue that he created the opportunity for Keane. (And if MLS is in generous mood - how about giving Luke Rodgers back the one stolen from him in 2011?)

It was Donovan's day; RBNY meekly settled into the role of good-but-not-good-enough opponent.

Too meekly, perhaps.

There is no reason to panic over this result, but there is cause for concern. We saw the return of several problems RBNY has battled this season; problems it had been hoped might have been solved by the team's recent hot streak (the Red Bulls have won five of their last nine games; they won five of their first 21 matches of 2014).

Mike Petke's options were limited by the injuries to Oyongo and Sam, which made it a little surprising to see him keep the faith with the 4-2-3-1.

Remember the debut of the formation? It was September 6 against Sporting Kansas City. At the time, Petke explained he'd sat down with his staff and figured out a way to get the team's four best attacking players on the field, in positions that suited them. It was a match that conflicted with FIFA international dates, Tim Cahill and Ambroise Oyongo were not available, and the attacking quartet in question comprised Bradley Wright-Phillips, Thierry Henry, Peguy Luyindula and Lloyd Sam.

The formation worked out. Petke stuck with it: the same starting lineup and tactic contested the September 10 win over D.C. United; Cahill took BWP's place up top for the September 13 game in Philadelphia; Oyongo started against Seattle, displacing Luyindula from the lineup and causing Henry to shift to a more central role.

Every game has been a playoff game. We did well the previous four games, and this one, we have to put it behind us -Mike Petke (lagalaxy.com)

In each case, the results suggested the formation was working: three wins and a draw is nothing to complain about. And the changes to the front four suggested this wasn't just a tactic for the four attacking players available on September 6, it was a tactic that could support numerous variations of personnel. Oyongo and Sam out wide offer pace; Luyindula and Henry offer superior technical ability and vision; Cahill and BWP can each play the lone striker role. Mix and match.

The four best attacking players in whatever combination is available or seems best suited to the opposition. The formation is relatively new: one ought not to fault Petke for trying it out on the road again; it had only been beaten once, and that was when an all-reserve team went to Montreal for CCL.

But one does question why Petke thought the best four attacking players on this day were BWP, Henry, Luyindula and...Eric Alexander.

That comes down to two huge players for us,Dax and Eric, over the last four games being that stop-gap, the clog in the middle -Mike Petke on RBNY's September success (mlssoccer.com)

The one constant of the formation until this game had been pairing Alexander and Dax McCarty as a defensive midfield tandem. They had been extremely effective, showing promising signs of bringing out the best in each other and helping to shore up a defense that looks set to be leaky for the rest of the year.

The one thing everyone knows about LA is the team is red hot and has the best attacking trio in the league: Donovan, Keane and Zardes. So the decision to pitch Alexander into Sam's role on the right and plant Cahill back with McCarty as a defensive midfielder was puzzling.

Why break up the key defensive midfield partnership? The answer, one suspects is Petke wanted Alexander to shield Duvall from Landon Donovan. It didn't work out, but the response was not to shift Alexander back alongside McCarty. Ten minutes after LD delivered his crowning humiliation of RBNY's right-back-in-progress, Petke took Duvall out of the game. Ten minutes later, once LA had gone three goals up, Alexander came out as well.

Cahill remained rooted in deepest midfield for most of the game, while the Red Bulls resorted to punting long balls and the occasional cross at BWP - who is six inches shorter than Omar Gonzalez. Cahill's absence from the front line was hard to take. But he stayed back until after BWP had left the pitch in the 81st minute for Marius Obekop.

So we never saw any serious attempt to get RBNY's best four attacking players working together on the day, nor did we see the team's best defensive midfield partnership in action.

It's all about the three games, specifically at home -Mike Petke (lagalaxy.com)

As mentioned, the result didn't really matter. If Petke had a hunch about how to confront the best team in the league away from home without any true wingers, this was the only opportunity to test the theory without irrevocable consequences.

Also, the Red Bulls didn't lose because Cahill did anything terrible in midfield or Alexander made a mistake on the right. The Red Bulls lost because they were taken apart at key moments by LA's crackerjack attack.

And because BWP had one of those days in front of goal to remind everyone of how extraordinary he has been for much of the season. Everyone except Taylor Twellman, who appears to believe Wright-Phillips should be considered a failure for not having converted 50% of his chances this season: 20% is an elite rate for a high-volume scorer historically in MLS; Twellman's career rate was 18.1%; BWP's current rate is 26.4%.

Wright-Phillips had a luckless match. He had three significant chances, all in the first half, all at a time when a goal would have been the equalizer and might have allowed RBNY to refocus on containing LA.

Against all the other goalies, he scored those goals. Jaime did a great job -Landon Donovan on BWP vs. Penedo (lagalaxy.com)

His first chance was snuffed out by Jaime Penedo. No blame to BWP; full credit to the Galaxy's 'keeper. RBNY's leading scorer next proceeded to miss out on a clear shot on goal because he's not terribly quick (A.J. DeLaGarza scrambled in to clear just as BWP's foot was coming down on the ball). And he followed that miss with a chance where his touch let him down and he stumbled over the ball just as he had his window to shoot.

It is quickness of thought and sureness of touch that has won BWP most of his goals this year. He didn't have them in LA, and he didn't score.

If one of BWP's chances had gone in, perhaps this game might have ended differently.

I've only got one thing to say...Well done, LA -Thierry Henry (lagalaxy.com)

But probably not. LA was simply too good in the final third for RBNY's defense.

That Petke picked a cognitively dissonant formation for the players he selected, and stuck with it long after it had ceased to be effective, is not the end of the world. If there was a game to experiment (even if the experiment appeared to be a regression to previously discarded habits), it was this one.

The greatest frustration with this game, and with watching Tim Cahill buried in deepest midfield, was that it implied RBNY's preceding match might have been different.

The Red Bulls crashed out in El Salvador because, when everything else had failed, they lacked a true scoring threat to bring off the bench. Cahill should have been that threat.

Petke said he couldn't bring the Australian for CCL because he was injured, and we must take him at his word. Nor can we say there weren't tried and true starters on the field against CD FAS: both Oyongo and Sam were missing in LA because of injuries sustained in El Salvador.

Nonetheless, it is frustrating to think Cahill's apparently fragile fitness was saved so that he could play a defensive midfield role in a game the team could afford to lose rather than giving him 30 minutes to chase a goal RBNY absolutely had to get to stay in CCL.

More concerning: the possibility the message of the lineup against LA is that Petke simply does not see Cahill as one of his four best attacking players. Which would suggest something has gone awry in the coach's perception of the club's top scorer in 2013 and a man who, as recently as June, was being heralded as one of the best forwards on the planet.

But the result didn't matter. What's done is done. And all that is important now for the Red Bulls is to shrug this result off and get back to winning - as many times as is necessary to be on the right side of MLS's thin red line when the 34th game of the regular season is concluded.