GALAXY: L.A.'s start bests N.Y.'s finish

Thierry Henry and the Red Bulls still have hope they can come back on David Beckham and the Galaxy. Mike Stobe/Getty Images

HARRISON, N.J. -- Hans Backe's take on the Galaxy's triumph Sunday: The Red Bulls were in command the whole way.

David Beckham's: The Galaxy played their game and got the result they were after.

Mike Magee's: L.A. isn't going to win an MLS Cup with many more performances like that one.

The opener of the first-round Major League Soccer playoff series served as a “Rashomon” experience for those involved, with no two versions of what occurred on the Red Bull Arena turf quite alike.

What can be agreed upon is this: The Galaxy is halfway to the Western Conference final following a gritty 1-0 decision over New York in which one beautiful Beckham ball, one tremendous Magee finish and plenty of lights-out defending by the visitors in the second half added up to an often invigorating and unquestionably intense battle.

Part II comes Thursday night, when L.A. takes its advantage into the second leg of the two-game, total-goals matchup at Home Depot Center knowing that a draw will be enough to send it to its third successive conference title game.

Magee scored the goal, firing home from a tough angle after his late run for a superb long ball by Beckham beat the Red Bulls' offside trap, and the Galaxy's backline -- led by center back Omar Gonzalez and goalkeeper Josh Saunders, both impeccable -- absorbed heavy pressure the final 45 minutes to notch the club's 21st shutout in 43 games this season, all competitions.

“Listen, we're not happy with the way we played,” Magee said afterward. “We're extremely happy with the points, but we stopped playing for some reason, which is uncharacteristic of us this season. That [kind of play is] not why we're here. I think we're well aware that if we have a similar performance and a similar effort, we might not get three points. We need to play better.

“We had some chances to score, to put a second one away. We gave them chances to score. We're well aware that performance isn't going to win us MLS Cup.”

Divide the game in half. The first half belonged to the Galaxy, which dictated the pace with an elegant possession game -- despite a heavy, pockmarked field damaged somewhat in the snow-removal process following Saturday's storm -- and created two chances, both from Beckham long balls, that should have provided a two-goal lead by the 15th minute.

The second half was all about the Red Bulls, who finally found a way to get wide -- primarily on the left, through Joel Lindpere and Roy Miller -- and quickly set a tone with three superb chances in the first four minutes after the break, the first two from Rafa Marquez balls over the top.

Saunders slapped away two of them, denying Dane Richards and, even better, Lindpere, and the backline, with Gonzalez doing much of the dirty work, was resolute the rest of the way.

Better aim by New York might have made for a different result. The Bulls put just five of 17 shots on target, and Marquez managed just one of six on frame, a stoppage-time grass-burner that Saunders leapt to corral.

“Not the result we wanted, of course, losing at home, but it was a great performance, absolutely one of our better games by far for a couple months,” said Backe, the Red Bulls' Swedish head coach. “Totally controlled the game, dictate the game. Four huge chances to tie the game.

“For me, this [series] is totally wide open. If we can perform like this on Thursday, we have won before in L.A.” -- last season -- “and we can do it again.”

New York surely dictated the game after halftime, but the Galaxy created the best opportunity, with Landon Donovan, from a long ball by Todd Dunivant, bearing down one-on-one against Bulls goalkeeper Frank Rost after defender Tim Ream slipped on the turf. Rost parried the shot.

“I haven't trained a lot in the last few weeks, so it wasn't completely comfortable,” said Donovan, making his first start in a month because of a quadriceps injury. “But I should score that, there's no question.”

The Galaxy should have had one in the 12th minute, when another piece of Beckham perfection found Magee at the top of the box. Stephen Keel tackled it away, and Robbie Keane, returning from a torn leg muscle, blasted the remains off the right post.

“I was trying to be too cute,” Magee said. “But, yeah, the ball was perfect. You know any time that guy gets the ball, you've just got to put yourself in the most dangerous spot, 'cause he'll put it there with ease.”

Three minutes later, Beckham's delivery paid off. The Red Bulls backline became transfixed with getting Keane offside, and he was -- but Magee, sneaking through on the left, wasn't. He took the pass, opened up and fired from the left side of the box past Rost and into the far-post netting.

“I struck it well,” Magee said. “I hit it perfectly. The ball was even better by David.”

Beckham thought otherwise: “Mikey knew where to run -- I saw him running, and it was a great finish. It was a good assist, but it was a better finish.”

Beckham said he was happy with the Galaxy's performance.

“We're disappointed we didn't get a second goal, because we had a few chances,” he said. “No complaints, you know. We came here, we played our game, we got a result.”

Defense is the Galaxy's game, and they put on a box-defending clinic, especially Gonzalez and partner A.J. DeLaGarza.

“Man, we had to absorb tremendous pressure,” Gonzalez said. “I don't know what Hans Backe said in there [at halftime], but he definitely lit a fire under them.”

Said Red Bulls forward Thierry Henry: “The way they were defending was very good. They were blocking shots. Donovan coming back and saving goals sometimes. Becks and some other players. I thought they had a great team performance. ... At the end of the day, they showed us why they were the best team this year, but we still have 90 minutes, and, hopefully, we can do what they did to us over there.”

Both teams will be shorthanded. An end-of-game scuffle, which started when Marquez threw the ball at Donovan at the final whistle, led to red cards for Marquez and Galaxy midfielder Juninho, and further sanctions appear possible.