All of Major League Soccer will turn its collective gaze toward the City of Angels this weekend as the Red Bulls head west to visit the Los Angeles Galaxy on Saturday (11 p.m. ET, ESPN 2, ESPN Deportes).
Both clubs sit atop their respective conference standings, with the Red Bulls' 4-1-2 record comparing favorably to the Galaxy's at 4-2-3. The Red Bulls enter the Home Depot Center on the heels of a three-game winning streak fueled by goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul's three consecutive shutouts and the prolific offense produced by forwards Thierry Henry and Luke Rodgers.
Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe announced that holding midfielder Teemu Tainio will miss the game due to a lingering groin injury, which should open the door for Mehdi Ballouchy or Carl Robinson to step up and hold the line against the Galaxy's dangerous midfield.
The Galaxy hope to rebound from a peculiar and rain-soaked 2-1 loss to FC Dallas last Sunday that included a one-hour delay due to lightning. They will look to ride the recent two-game scoring streak of midfielder Landon Donovan in addition to David Beckham, Juninho and Mike McGee penetrating the vaunted Red Bulls backfield and providing sufficient service for the Galaxy attack.
Designated Player Showcase: Henry and Beckham will clash on an MLS pitch for the first time this weekend, with Rafael Marquez joining Henry and Donovan and Juan Pablo Angel alongside Beckham. Each club's place at the top of the conference standings will add a glow to all the star power at the Home Depot Center this weekend, with each superstar's performance awaiting a period of scrutiny that should linger for quite a while. A hero could emerge from an unlikely source on either of these squads, but you can start looking for candidates among these five proven veterans.
Fallen Angel: The Red Bulls will get their first look at former captain Juan Pablo Angel since his contentious exit from New York at the end of the 2010 season. Angel, who became the Red Bulls’ all-time leading scorer during his four-year tenure with the club, signed with the Galaxy in the offseason after being informed by Backe in during the 2010 season that his contract with the club would not be renewed. Angel's tenure ended awkwardly as Backe prepared his club for life without Angel while he was still on the roster and with no recourse for Angel to change Backe’s mind. If there’s any lingering hurt feelings on the Colombian international’s behalf, it will show up in Saturday’s contest.
4-4-2: If you ever wanted to debate the merits of the popular 4-4-2 formation, Saturday's contest should provide you with ample opportunities. Both clubs play the 4-4-2, but in considerably different ways.
The Red Bulls tend to keep a steady formation built around a midfield featuring Tainio holding, Dane Richards out wide right, Joel Lindpere shallow left and Dwayne De Rosario attacking. It gives the backline room to send long passes into the midfield and allows the midfielders room to maneuver their passing.
Moreover, the Red Bulls rely on their backline led by Marquez and Tim Ream to decide how much space to allot in the midfield, by moving up to shorten the field and keeping opposing teams from building a counterattack too quickly. All of them do the dirty work to provide service for Henry and Rodgers up top so the dynamic attacking duo can finish with ease.
The Galaxy line up in a 4-4-2, but their formation tends to morph as the game situation demands. Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena likes to start Donovan and McGee out wide, but often finds more success with the duo when they play tighter to the middle. When Arena reins them in, the formation can resemble a 4-2-2-2 or even a 4-2-4 on the fly as the Galaxy midfield goes on the offensive.
If the Galaxy take a lead and enter shutdown mode, they’ll draw an attacker back into something mimicking a 4-5-1. Without a dominant finisher up top, the Galaxy tend to live and die by the efficacy of its midfield.
Key Matchup: Battle of the Midfields. While much will be made of the big names participating in Saturday's match, this is a game that will be won in the trenches. The Red Bulls rely on frequent, moderately long passes and stretching the opposing defense to build their attack. It’s unclear whether the loss of Tainio will disrupt the Red Bulls' midfield momentum in any meaningful way, but it may create a weakness for the Galaxy to exploit.
Arena often allows the Galaxy midfield to wreak havoc on the pitch, especially on the counterattack. They will put considerable pressure on the Red Bulls' defensive front all night, but how much the New York backline can withstand remains unclear (especially with Ballouchy or Robinson subbing for the injured Tainio). Whoever makes the appropriate adjustments to disrupt their opponent's passing game at midfield will go a long way to disabling the premier players on that club.
Third Time Zone’s the Charm. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, MLS teams traveling three time zones for their match this season possess a pathetic 0-10-9 record while being outscored 28-10. Whether it's an issue of simply adjusting to a three-hour change in schedule or evidence of home-field advantage, the Red Bulls may need to sleep in late on Saturday to buck the time zone trend and challenge the Galaxy on their own schedule.