MLS CUP: Head-to-Head Breakdown: New York vs. LA Galaxy

Who's got the edge in Sunday's high-profile first-leg matchup?

People snickered when the Red Bulls spent a DP slot on a 38-year-old ‘keeper, snickered some more when Frank Rost looked mediocre in his first handful of games, and then nearly strained a muscle snickering when he got hurt after the Emirates Cup. But since returning from that injury, Rost has been the most important piece of New York’s stretch run as the once-porous defense have picked up four shutouts in his last seven starts. He’s not great in one-vs.-one situations, but he commands his box and – probably the most important part – has had a calming influence on the previously mistake-prone central defense.

 

GOALKEEPERS

 

Donovan Ricketts was named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year in 2010. Since he missed about half the season, he won’t defend his title – but you could make a real strong argument for Ricketts and backup Josh Saunders sharing it (with assists from Brian Perk and Mike Magee, of course). Combined they allowed the fewest goals in the league and picked up 15 shutouts. Combine their numbers and you have one of the best seasons by a ‘keeper in MLS history. The only issue is one of uncertainty, since it’s not clear who Bruce Arena’s going to tab for the starting spot this postseason.

One of the storylines of the season has been the sophomore slump of second-year defender Tim Ream, whose mistakes – turnovers in his own end and a propensity for losing his man on set pieces – were hard to ignore. But with the addition of Stephen Keel to the central defense, Ream has picked up his game and is starting to show the form that made him such a hot prospect in 2010. Left back Roy Miller has been solidly reliable all season – one of the few Red Bulls who can say as much – but right back is a concern no matter who’s out there. On Saturday it will be old reliable Carlos Mendes, who’s a more natural central defender. He’ll be who the Galaxy target.

 

DEFENSE

 

The Galaxy won the Supporters’ Shield with relative ease, and did so largely because they do their best thing – defend like hell – better than anyone else does anything else. The key to it has been behemoth central defender Omar Gonzalez, who’s a darkhorse MVP candidate and a shoo-in for Defender of the Year. He’ll probably be joined by Gregg Berhalter, the veteran who makes up in positioning and experience what he lacks in pace. Todd Dunivant is obviously going to be the starting left back, but there’s a question at right back: the newly healthy Sean Franklin, the experienced Frankie Hejduk or backline utility man A.J. DeLaGarza? All three have plenty of big-game experience, but Hejduk is probably where the smart money is.

The RBNY midfield never really took off in the way most expected after its very, very good 2010 season. Nonetheless, Joel Lindpere and Dane Richards proved to be quality battlers for every second they were on the pitch, adding quality on both sides of the ball and, in the case of Richards, off-the-charts speed that could keep any defense in the league honest. The current central pairing of Rafa Márquez and Teemu Tainio provide little threat going forward, but they’ve looked better than previous iterations Hans Backe has used this year and Márquez switches the field of play with a precision bettered only by Beckham. The key will be limiting turnovers, as the counterattack is where the Galaxy feast and neither Márquez nor Tainio have the speed to track them in transition.

 

MIDFIELD

David Beckham had the best season of his MLS career, picking up a pair of goals and 15 assists. But what really made him stand out was the way he was constantly able to switch the field so precisely, giving LA’s attackers time and space in which to work the flanks. He’s also been diligent defensively, harrying the opposing midfield everywhere on the pitch. Brazilian Juninho has been the perfect partner for Beckham, playing a holding role in front of the defense, rarely turning the ball over and providing a long-range threat when he goes forward. Landon Donovan hasn’t had his most spectacular year numbers-wise, but he’s fought through injury and always provides danger on and off the ball going forward, while Magee is a hard worker in the middle third and a serious scoring threat in the box.

It’s hard to believe that the key to a team with three DPs and a host of internationals from around the world is a Brummie from the third tier of English soccer, but that’s been exactly the case for the Red Bulls this season. Luke Rodgers has been simply fantastic when he’s healthy, and RBNY are a much, much better team with him in the lineup – which he’s expected to be on Sunday. The fact that he’ll be playing alongside Thierry Henry, who had 14 goals and four assists in the regular season then added another tally against FC Dallas on Wednesday, just makes them that much more potent.

 

FORWARDS

The fact that the Galaxy compiled almost two points per game in the regular season despite lacking a go-to scoring threat up top is a testament to their team approach. The summer acquisition of Robbie Keane was supposed to fix that, but Keane has spent most of his time either away with Ireland or, over the past month, nursing an injury. He’s been very good when healthy and available, but is still questionable for Sunday. That means Arena will likely go to his forward-by-committee plan, or perhaps even move Donovan up top and have someone else play outside midfield. Major questions heading into a playoff series, but LA have been winning all season this way.

 

Backe does things a little bit differently, but he’s been pretty successful in his two years in New York despite what was, quite frankly, a disappointing 2011 regular season. Even more disappointing, though, was the 2010 playoff series against San Jose – particularly the second game when Backe failed to adjust to Frank Yallop’s tactics and saw his defense exposed three times. That demon needs to be exorcised.

 

COACH

Two straight Supporters’ Shields is just the latest accomplishment to add to the long, long list Arena already has to his credit. He owns the highest winning percentage of any coach in MLS history, and has said all year that this team’s No. 1 goal is to win the MLS Cup – which would be Arena’s first since his 1997 D.C. United team did the Shield/Cup double, and LA’s first since 2005.

The Red Bulls don’t have a particularly deep bench, which is fine since Backe probably wouldn’t use it even if they had. Juan Agudelo is a great option to bring in as a game-changer up front, but he hasn’t played much lately. Mehdi Ballouchy provided the game-winning assist against Dallas, but his plus-minus is brutal this season. Stéphane Auvray could add some legs to the central midfield if needed, but hasn’t played much. And the defense, especially without Solli, is paper-thin.

 

BENCH

LA don’t win the Supporters’ Shield and advance to the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League without digging deep into the roster. They can go four deep at forward with a bunch of different looks; in midfield they can put out a potential game-breaker like Paolo Cardozo, a veteran workhorse like Chris Birchall, or a steady two-way player in Michael Stephens. And on defense they go seven deep with Gonzalez being the only one who’s irreplaceable.

RBNY, for their part, look somewhat rejuvenated after a summer swoon made it seem like they were long-shots for the postseason. Nobody’s ever going to accuse them of being a team of destiny, but they’ve shown fight and resilience in the wake of the calamitous 3-1 loss to RSL last month. The real question is will they hold up on set pieces, and will they be able to create against the tough LA defense? They’ve fared well against the Galaxy over the past two years, so there’s more than just a little hope that the Red Bulls will come out of this series among the fans. But make no mistake: They are clear underdogs, and they’ll need to play their best soccer of the year to advance.

 

OVERALL

In 2009, the Galaxy came within a penalty-kick shootout of claiming the MLS Cup, and were second in Shield race. A year later, they took the Shield, but were blitzed in the Western Conference Championship by FC Dallas. They took the Shield again in 2011, making for one of the best three-year runs in league history, and have done it while getting younger and more dynamic each season, but keeping the core veterans together. The only concern is that some of those vets are showing wear and tear, and at the end of a long season that’s approaching 50 games (if you count World Football Challenge matches), that could be telling: Teams that have played a lot of games tend to not do so well in the playoffs.