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GALAXY: Shield? Nah, it's a new season

HOBOKEN, N.J. -- The Galaxy won 19 games, amassed 67 points -- just one off Major League Soccer's record -- and claimed the Supporters' Shield, as the league's best regular-season team, for the second year in a row.

As they head into their playoff opener Sunday, know what it all means? Nothing.

L.A. might be the favorite as it embarks on its postseason campaign with a bright-lights showdown against the New York Red Bulls, but don't mistake that for anything of significance. The playoffs are about who's hot now, and few teams are as sizzling as the Red Bulls.

The Galaxy understand this better than most. They got drilled by FC Dallas in last year's Western Conference final, then watched as the Colorado Rapids -- the No. 7 seed -- pulled out an overtime thriller in the MLS Cup final to capture the trophy.

A year before, Real Salt Lake -- the No. 8 seed, with a losing record -- beat L.A. on penalties in the title game.

“I think what you need to do is just kind of throw everything out the window and say this is another competition,” said Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, whose team meets the Red Bulls in the first leg of a first-round series at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., and will be home for Thursday's second leg. “All this is going to prove is who's the best team in this format over the couple weeks that we have it.”

The Supporters' Shield gets far less attention but is the worthier measuring stick of quality in MLS, and only five teams in the league's first 15 years have captured both -- and just one, the 2008 Columbus Crew, since 2002. Just as many champs have come in seeded fifth or worse.

“Anywhere else in the world, we'd be champions,” David Beckham noted. “Do I agree with [the format]? I don't agree with it. No, it should be the same as everywhere else, and I'd be sitting here with two league [-championship] medals.”

The Galaxy gets some hardware with the Shield, and the top seed and home-field advantage for the playoffs, but little else. They're in the far tougher of the four-team brackets, battling second-place Seattle, third-place Real Salt Lake and a Red Bulls team that arguably has the best talent in MLS for one berth in the Nov. 20 MLS Cup final at Home Depot Center. The other bracket -- the Eastern Conference bracket -- is headed by the league's fifth-best team.

“In think it's a little bit of a mess, and it needs to be addressed, and I'm hopeful that there's a lot more player input put into it ...,” Galaxy captain Landon Donovan said of the postseason set-up. “There's no debate. Everyone knows it's not right. So we've got to find a way to fix it.”

It's not going to happen this year, and playoffs are here to stay. The MLS Cup champion always will be celebrated, but the wish among those who play the game is that the Shield will receive equal -- or greater -- billing. Don't count on it.

“[The Shield] is a really big accomplishment,” Donovan said. “Ask any guy in the league, any coach, any GM, what's the hardest thing to do in this league, and it's win the Supporters' Shield. We're very proud of it. Unfortunately in our league, it doesn't mean a whole lot.”

So the Galaxy heads into what Donovan calls “a four-game crapshoot.”

“Whoever's playing well at the right time can win,” he says. “By no means is it an assessment of how your season went.”

Just getting through the first round will be an achievement. New York, much like the Galaxy, has skill and depth around the field -- and in forwards Thierry Henry and Luke Rodgers, midfielders Rafa Marquez, Joel Lindpere, Dane Richards and Teemu Tainio, and right back Jan Gunnar Solli have seven difference-makers. Most in MLS were hoping to avoid the Red Bulls right now.

“They're a team that plays well when they're confident,” Donovan said. “Right now, their confidence is really high. At the beginning of the year, I thought they would challenge us for the Supporters' Shield. The middle part of the year, they dipped -- they had issues with how they would play, how they went about things on the field -- but I think [New York coach] Hans Backe has done a very good job figuring out how they can be successful, and the players have bought into it. Now they're playing as well as any team in the league.”

Henry, a French superstar with four World Cups on his résumé, calls the Galaxy the “best team in the league, the best unit” and says New York's record against L.A. -- they won and drew two meetings this season -- is because “we raised our game” when challenged by the best.

He likes the Red Bulls' chances.

“You see a lot of upsets in cups, throughout the history in any country,” he said. “It's a different type of thing. You approach the game in a different way in a cup game. L.A. can have all that consistency for the whole year -- they have that already. For us, we're building on what we've been doing in the past games [and] here we are playing against the best team in the league and trying to cause an upset. It's totally different. You can't compare a season [game] and a cup game.”

WORTH NOTING: Irish forward Robbie Keane, who is coming back from a muscle tear in his leg, could be ready to go, if not in the starting XI, then as part of the 18-man game roster. Donovan, who has seen just 22 minutes of action since sustaining a quadriceps injury on Oct. 1, is expected to start although he says he's “still not 100 percent.” ... Rodgers, a gritty English striker who missed New York's wild-card victory Wednesday at Dallas, says he's ready to play 90 minutes. The Red Bulls have won just twice this season when he wasn't in the starting lineup. ... New York leads the all-time series, 16-15-6 (with one shootout win apiece), and has outscored the Galaxy, 54-53. ... The first meeting this season, May 7 at Home Depot Center, was a 1-1 draw, with Henry and Donovan trading first-half goals. Henry and Rodgers tallied in a 2-0 Red Bulls win over an exhausted Galaxy on Oct. 4 at Red Bull Arena.

MISSING: Defenders Leonardo and Sean Alvarado (both torn ACLs) and defender/midfielder Bryan Jordan (ruptured finger tendon) are out. ... Officially questionable: Donovan, Keene, Beckham (back spasms), midfielder/right back Sean Franklin (inflamed knee), defender Gregg Berhalter (sprained foot) and midfielder Dustin McCarty (concussion), but all but McCarty, who did not travel, are likely to feature, at the very least in the 18.

THE OPPONENT

NEW YORK RED BULLS

Head coach

  • Swede Backe has followed an undistinguished playing career with three decades as a coach in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Austria, Greece, England and as an assistant coach with Mexico's national team. He took charge of New York last year, built a formidable lineup and won the Eastern Conference regular-season title with a 15-9-6 record before falling to San Jose in the first round of the playoffs.

Three key players

  • Henry is among the globe's finest attacking players of the past 20 years, a wing-forward with a superb scoring touch and a knack for creating chances for teammates. He finished third in the MLS scoring race with 14 goals.

  • Estonian winger Lindpere was a revelation when he arrived in MLS last season, and he contributed seven goals and seven assists starting all 34 games, the only Red Bull to do so. He scored the winner Wednesday at FC Dallas.

  • Jamaican winger Richards can destroy defenses with his speed, and he scored seven goals with seven assists. He's key to opening space for New York to implement midfield control.

Current form/prospects

  • The Red Bulls might have uncommon talent, but they went through difficult times this year, winning just twice during one 4½-month stretch, primarily because of shoddy defending. They've righted things in the past six weeks or so and come into the playoffs in their best form since the start of the season, when they rivaled Real Salt Lake as MLS's best side.

Local connections

  • Reserve right back Chris Albright played in 130 MLS games (and won two MLS Cup titles) with the Galaxy from 2002 to 2007. ... Galaxy left back Todd Dunivant and midfielder Mike Magee spent time with the Red Bulls. ... Arena was New York's head coach for parts of 2006 and 2007. ... New York midfielder Dax McCarty is Galaxy rookie Dustin's big brother.

Missing

  • Solli is suspended after picking up a red card in the wild-card victory at FC Dallas. ... Albright (calf strain) and midfielders Sacir Hot (knee surgery) and Carl Robinson (bruised knee) are out. ... Rodgers (inflamed knee) and McCarty (sprained ankle) are questionable, but Backe says both will be available.

THE GAME

At Red Bull Arena (Harrison, N.J.), noon PT

TV: ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes

Radio: K-Talk (KTLK-AM/1150, English) and ESPN Deportes (KWKU-AM/1220 and KWKW-AM/1330, both Spanish)

Referee: Alex Prus

POTENTIAL STARTING XI

New York: Frank Rost; Carlos Mendes, Stephen Keel, Tim Ream, Roy Miller; Dane Richards, Rafa Marquez, Teemu Tainio, Joel Lindpere; Luke Rodgers, Thierry Henry.

Galaxy: Donovan Ricketts; Sean Franklin, Omar Gonzalez, Gregg Berhalter, Todd Dunivant; Landon Donovan, David Beckham, Juninho, Mike Magee; Adam Cristman, Chad Barrett.