Great sporting matchups are underpinned by sharp juxtapositions. And they garner even more poignancy when their differences are borne from circumstances that are essentially the same.
Take Tuesday night's MLS affair between the Los Angeles Galaxy and the New York Red Bulls. The two clubs, the mid-growth spurt giants of a budding league, share a great many similarities. They are the most expensively assembled teams in the league's history. Between David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane on the Pacific side and Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez on the Atlantic, they have a near-monopoly on the league's star wattage. They play in state-of-the-art stadiums, paradigms of the American game, paid for by mighty multinational ownerships -- AEG in the Galaxy's case and Red Bull for the eponymous New York club. They're commanded by big-time coaches, the Galaxy's Bruce Arena and Red Bulls' Hans Backe. And between them, they employ the five best-paid players in league history, making a combined $22.4 million in guaranteed annual compensation when the salary cap is still only $2.67 million per team (with designated players like the aforementioned five only counting against the cap for $335,000 each). They are the defending Eastern and Western Conference regular-season champions and when they last met five months ago, playing to a 1-1 tie at the Galaxy's Home Depot Center, were first and second overall in the league.
Yet they contrast markedly in the product they deliver on the pitch.
Under Arena's steady hand, the Galaxy has been solid through and through this year, sitting at or very near to the top of the West. Beckham has turned in the sort of season the club expected in the fifth and final year of his contract, leading the league with 15 assists. Donovan has picked up his team when in need, scoring clutch goals, and 12 in all. Keane has looked like a good late-summer acquisition. And the carefully assembled supporting cast has been effective, especially the defense, which has conceded 23 goals, nine fewer than any other team.
And then there's New York, peon to Backe's incessant tinkering. After occupying first place a few months into the season, the Red Bulls dove headlong into a spectacular free fall. For all the calm exuded by the Galaxy, New York comes off as a cauldron of irritability and neuroses. Henry has been productive, scoring 13 times, but grumpy. Marquez has been a flop, responsible for far more goals conceded than scored. Battling a shambolic defense, rampant underperformance, a revolving door in midfield and a mercurial attack, which is inexplicably tied for second in the league in goals scored with 47, the Red Bulls won only twice between April 30 and Sept. 17, a 20-game span, both times against last-place New England Revolution.
The Red Bulls have since rebounded somewhat, taking two wins and a draw from their past four games. But since the Galaxy kept up their speedy point accumulation throughout the Red Bulls' epic swoon, the two teams have diverged to the point where the Galaxy has long since clinched its automatic playoff berth. If it beats the Red Bulls, in fact, it will clinch its second consecutive Supporters' Shield too and confirm its status among the favorites for the MLS Cup. New York, meanwhile, is a favorite only to miss out on the playoffs and become the league's biggest bust of all time. It clings on to the fourth and final wild card berth -- which will qualify its holder for a play-in game to the playoffs -- for which it is tied on points with the Portland Timbers. New York's saving grace: it holds a better head-to-head record. D.C. United, meanwhile, is two points behind but has a game in hand, making the three points up for grabs in the showdown with Los Angeles, re-scheduled from its original Aug. 27 date on account of Hurricane Irene, essential to the Red Bulls.
The protagonists, therefore, have every motivation to make this game a memorable one -- to confirm glory and stave off disaster, respectively.