Thursday, November 3, 2011

Do or Die: Red Bulls Face a Tough Task in L.A.

The First Leg Was Feisty. Don't Expect Anything Different Tonight. (Photo by Dan Dickinson)
The 2011 New York Red Bulls have to be accustomed to "must-win" games by now. They certainly faced enough of them during the final weeks of the MLS regular season. Yet each time fans expected the team to plunge over the precipice they somehow found a way to keep their postseason hopes alive.

Now, however, trailing by a goal on aggregate to the Los Angeles Galaxy in their Western Conference Semifinal series, the task for the Red Bulls is particularly challenging. The Galaxy has not lost a home game all season, on the way to capturing the Supporters' Shield. Their stingy defense and solid goalkeeping have shut opponents down time and time again at the Home Depot Center. Bruce Arena's team may not be the league's most entertaining or high-scoring, but they give so little away that even a 1-0 deficit seems daunting. So - can the Red Bulls pull off a surprise tonight and move on to play Real Salt Lake? Yes, but only if a number of variables break their way:

  • L.A.'s goalkeeping: Josh Saunders was arguably Man of the Match in the first leg at Red Bull Arena, parrying away a number of shots and making a key save on a goal-bound effort by Rafa Marquez as the seconds ticked away. With the Galaxy expected to sit back a bit on their 1-0 advantage and play it conservatively, while New York will be forced to attack, Saunders may need to come up big again. Can he play out of his skin twice in a week? 
  • The Juninho Factor: As a result of his post game scuffle with Rafa Marquez and Stephen Keel, Juninho will have to sit out the second leg, with Chris Birchall the most likely replacement in the center of L.A.'s midfield. The Brazilian has been a key player for the Galaxy this season, while Birchall - even at his best - is a bit of a step down, not to mention less of a threat going forward. Consequently, David Beckham may have to do a bit more defensive work in the second leg than he did in the first. Meanwhile, the Red Bulls are arguably better off with Dax McCarty starting in place of Marquez.
  • Playoff pressure: You could make a decent argument that the Red Bulls, who nearly missed the postseason bus entirely, are playing with house money at this point. Los Angeles, on the other hand, are under extraordinary pressure to win a trophy in Beckham's final year.
  • Firepower: Not since early July have the Red Bulls failed to score in successive games. If RBNY can keep things tight at the back and avoid letting in an early goal, there is a decent likelihood that they'll find a way to breach L.A.'s defense. 
  • Set pieces: New York continues to be vulnerable on free kicks and corners (see Magee, Mike). Given Beckham's set piece skills, the Red Bulls will need to do everything in their power to avoid giving away cheap opportunities around their 18-yard box. Close off this avenue and the Galaxy are a somewhat less dangerous team.
Make no mistake - the Red Bulls are clear underdogs coming into tonight's game. But L.A.'s advantage is so razor thin that a RBNY win would hardly represent a massive upset. New York can live to fight another day, but they'll need to play smart and catch a break or two.

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