GALAXY: Red Bulls ready for the best

MONTCLAIR, N.J. -- The New York Red Bulls understand the magnitude of the challenge they face, and there's no question they believe they're up for it.

The last team to qualify for Major League Soccer's postseason plans to be the final team standing in three weeks, and to get there it will need an inspired effort in Sunday's opener of a two-games, total-goals, first-round series against the Galaxy.

Getting here was tougher than imagined -- the Red Bulls (10-8-16) have the league's highest payroll and, arguably, greatest talent -- but the team has been in fine form the past month and a half or so and believes it can take down the Supporters' Shield winners.

“All I can tell you,” says French striker Thierry Henry, the biggest of the Red Bulls' big-name players, “is [the Galaxy] are the best team in the league. Every time we had a chance to upset them, it's because we also raised our game and played better, so, hopefully, we can do the same thing.”

They need to score more goals than L.A. in games Sunday, with a noon kickoff PT (ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes), and Thursday night at Home Depot Center, or prevail on penalty kicks if the sides finish on even terms.

“We did match up well with them since I have arrived [in MLS],” said Henry, who scored in both meetings with the Galaxy this season, a 1-1 draw in Carson and a 2-0 victory early this month over a truncated L.A. squad at Red Bull Arena. “They're consistent, they don't concede a lot of goals. That leaves always a chance for them to score in the last minute or even before that.

“They don't concede a lot, they can keep a 1-nil up, so we need to be careful. We know what can happen [when] they score a lot of goals. You have to stop [David] Beckham from playing those long balls that can kill you. And with Landon Donovan and some of the players who can play short.

“They've been not only this year but last year, also, the best team in the league, so let's see what we can do. But we all know it will be a tough test.”

The Red Bulls figure to benefit from the return of English forward Luke Rodgers, who missed the midweek wild-card victory at FC Dallas with fluid on his knee but said Saturday he's “definitely” ready to go 90 minutes. That's a big deal: New York's months-long struggles coincided with his absence with a plantar fasciitis injury.

Rodgers, the Bulls' emotional leader, says going against the Shield winners -- the regular-season champs -- is a perfect way to start the postseason after so difficult a regular-season campaign.

“All the lads are buzzing,” he said. “It's a big team [we're playing against], we're at home. ... Everyone wants to play in big games. It'll just be a tough game, a very hard game. They've got great players, but so have we. ...

“They're a solid team, a good team, and they've proved that by winning the league. I don't see no weakness.”

Carlos Mendes, who will step in for suspended right back Jan Gunnar Solli, said he thinks the Red Bulls will “be all right” if “we play our game.”

Key to that is winger/forward Dane Richards, a Jamaican speedster whose ability to stretch defenses is critical to New York's midfield game. The Bulls might have the most talented midfield in MLS -- Mexican star Rafa Marquez teams with Finnish standout Teemu Tainio in the middle, with Estonia's Joel Lindpere on one flank and Richards or Dax McCarty, who is ready to go despite a sprained ankle, on the other -- and their success requires command in the middle of the field.

“You hope that Dane gets in behind them and stretches the game, because if he starts doing that, you know he'll have a good night,” Mendes said. “He'll stretch the game for us, and then we can kind of start to play our game. That's why Dane is so important for us. He'll stretch the [other] team, and that opens up spaces in midfield.”

This is a matchup Red Bulls coach Hans Backe relishes, because games against the Galaxy are “quality games.”

“It's not that hectic football,” he said. “More like kind of a European game, where you've got a little more time and space on the ball.”

Team defense, which has been pivotal to the Red Bulls' late-season resurgence, will be crucial, Backe said.

“Both center [midfielders for L.A.], Beckham and Juninho, are quality guys for final passes,” he said. “Also the wide players, with [Mike] Magee and Donovan, are quality players who can go for final passes. So I think we have to look more at a team effort for us defending, to get the [defensive] shape as quick as possible. Sprint to get the shape -- there's no time that you can jog to get the shape. You just need to sprint to get the shape and keep the team as tight as possible.”

Stretch the Galaxy, keep defensive shape, and it all ought to work out in the Red Bulls' favor, they believe.

“It looks like we're getting stronger at the right time,” Henry said. “Hopefully, that can last. But, again, they are the best team in the league. They set the level for the past two years in this league, even though they didn't win the MLS Cup [last year]. But it looks like we're getting stronger at the right time.”