CommentaryUnited States

Showdown in the MLS West

November 6, 2011 — by Rob Kirby

David Beckham's going out with a bang. He drew the penalty that won the match against New York and delivered the assist on both the other Galaxy goals so far in the playoffs.

The MLS Cup final approaches ever closer, but first there’s the small matter of divisional showdowns. Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles duke it out tonight in Los Angeles (9:00 EST, ESPN), after Sporting Kansas City and the Houston Dynamo kick things off in Kansas City (5:30 EST, Fox Soccer Channel). Then, after the two U.S. international friendlies against France and Slovenia (November 11 and 15), East and West face off on November 20.

Anything can happen in the playoffs, but smart money tips the victor of the MLS Western Conference final to hoist the cup. The Los Angeles Galaxy and Real Salt Lake finished the regular season first and third, respectively. Kansas City and Houston finished in the East’s top two spots, but only fifth and sixth overall. A massive 16 points separated first and fifth. The gulf in quality between divisions is huge. Simply put, the fixture between Los Angeles and Salt Lake will almost undoubtedly decide the outcome of the playoffs. In fairness, however, Kansas City and Houston both managed to take points off both Los Angeles and Real Salt Lake during the regular season, so there’s always a chance.

The Los Angeles Galaxy booked their spot in the conference final by knocking out the New York Red Bulls 2-1 in the home fixture, both goals coming off dead balls, both involving David Beckham—a corner and a penalty kick. (The former England international also provided the assist in L.A.’s 1-0 first leg victory in New Jersey.) Red Bulls’ Luke Rodgers had drawn first blood, doing well on an excellent through ball from Thierry Henry in the 4th minute that tied everything up on aggregate, but ultimately it didn’t matter. The Red Bulls couldn’t find another and they couldn’t defend what they had. The Galaxy’s Mike Magee scored a second goal in as many games, and Donovan converted the penalty to further his record as all-time highest scorer in the playoffs (18 total). Beckham delivered a classic corner kick for the first and earned the penalty that set up the second. Red Bulls, cup contention, no more. Blame the Brit (or perhaps the defensive frailties). In the final year of his five year contract, Beckham’s going full tilt for the cup, having never yet won the silverware (L.A. Galaxy lost the 2009 MLS Cup final on penalties–to Real Salt Lake, no less). He’s playing excellent soccer despite a back injury. The fans who once heckled him after the loan stints at AC Milan now write banners pleading with him to stay. 

Real Salt Lake can thank their goal scoring ability in the first leg (3-0) for securing passage to the conference finals. Seattle led the league in goals during the regular season, but three goals was always a big ask, even at home. They nearly pulled it off, though, winning the second leg 2-0. Kasey Keller pulled off save after save and went out fighting, but the men in lime green sherbet ultimately faltered. The defeat puts an end to Keller’s 20 year career between the sticks, domestically and in Europe. Seattle vs. Los Angeles would have been a tasty fixture, but the goal deficit was too much to overcome, even with Salt Lake missing both first choice centerbacks. Both Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers exited with quad injuries in the first leg at Rio Tinto Stadium.

Los Angeles conceded the fewest goals in the league, 28, but they lost at Salt Lake 4-1 in March, so nothing is a foregone conclusion on that front. Of note, the Galaxy remains undefeated at the Home Depot Center, with 9 straight home victories, 10 clean sheets and a scoring differential of 30-9 in 2011, so Real Salt Lake will most likely need to stage an encore performance, except at Los Angeles, this time. Fortunately, forwards Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola have shown they have what it takes to do so. And with Kyle Beckerman marshalling the midfield, with Argentinian Javier Morales moving runs on the wing, they can certainly make things happen.

Eastern Conference supporters may feel the focus on the West gives them short shrift, but realistically, the MLS Cup final begins tonight, and not in Kansas City. Upsets happen, but Los Angeles has the best defense in the league, coupled with Beckham, Magee, Donovan, Chad Barrett and Robbie Keane leading the attack, anchored by Juninho in midfield. They look unstoppable. Of the three teams in contention to stop them, Salt Lake has the best shot. And so it begins this evening.

CommentaryUnited States

The Bullfight Resumes at the L.A. Slaughterhouse

November 2, 2011 — by Rob Kirby

The Red Bulls misinterpret the phrase, "Show some fight, boys." Felled by an air punch after the final whistle, Rafael Márquez pulled off an Academy Award-worthy performance, while Stephen Keel (hand on face) boringly falls from an actual punch.

The L.A. Galaxy takes to the pitch Thursday night at home (11 p.m. ET, ESPN2) with a one-goal lead in the second leg of the MLS Western Conference semi-finals, having beaten the New York Red Bulls 1-0 in New Jersey on Sunday.

One might ask why an Eastern seaboard team finds itself in the Western conference side of the playoffs. The reason’s too long and too boring to go into. (In briefest explanation, New York won a 2-0 Wild Card round victory against FC Dallas the previous Wednesday.)

Mike Magee scored the lone goal against his former club, meaning the Red Bulls must win by a scoreline of 2-0, 3-1, etc. in order to progress outright. (Scoring, as with the Champions League, is done on aggregate.) Alternately, they must win by one in regular time, which would force 30 minutes of overtime. If still level on aggregate at 120 minutes, the team that shoots penalties best wins.

With a one-goal lead, Los Angeles can play for a tie at home and advance. Unfortunately for New York, no team has defeated the Galaxy at home this season, due largely to defensive stalwarts Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza. The Galaxy has won 8 straight at home, kept 10 clean sheets and outscored its opponents 28-8 in 2011. Unbeaten in 18 straight regular-season home games overall, Los Angeles enjoys the fourth-longest home record streak in the history of the MLS.

The Red Bulls trailed the Galaxy by 21 points and nine places in the standings at end of regular season. Were Kansas City to be adjudged “Western,” the Eastern Conference leader would have slotted in at fifth in the Western conference. It calls into question the legitimacy of having separate conferences, with one so far superior to the other. For now, however, it’s the system in place.

In the first leg, English superstar David Beckham, 36, in the fifth and final year of his MLS contract, served up a perfectly looped assist with pinpoint delivery for Magee to nab the match winner. Beckham finished second in the league with 15 assists and finds himself in realistic contention for league MVP. As does Landon Donovan, who scored 12 goals (tied for fifth in MLS) and holds the record as all-time highest goal scorer in MLS postseason. The Beckham Experiment may just conclude with an MLS Cup trophy, after all.

However, as long as Thierry Henry can walk and kick a ball, it’s unwise to entirely count out the Red Bulls. He played tenaciously on Sunday, a bit overly aggressively, even, and his leap into the air for a powerful bicycle kick showed him a 34-year-old with yet more gas in the tank. At 14 goals, he racked up the league’s third highest goal tally in the regular season, and his strike in the match against Dallas helped book a spot in the conference semi-finals.

Recent absentees Donovan and former Spurs man Robbie Keane (or, Roibeárd Ó Catháin, for those who speak Irish) have returned from injury, recovering from a quad strain and adductor injury, respectively. Both look likely to start Thursday, having suffered no setbacks in the first leg. Red Bulls managed to contain and shut them down on Sunday. They’ll likely need an encore performance to have any hope of progressing.

Goalie Josh Saunders notched his ninth shutout in 19 matches this season for the Galaxy, who lost 2-1 to the RBNY earlier this month at the Red Bull Arena. The Red Bulls need goals, but Saunders and the L.A. back four don’t often concede.

The defensive story on the New York side reads quite differently. Confusion over Keane and/or Magee being offside in the 14th minute of the first leg played a not insignificant part in the goal. And central defender Tim Ream dubiously tried to out-Terry John Terry, tripping himself up and faceplanting into the ragged pitch a day after the Chelsea captain’s farcical rendition in England. As for transfer rumors linking Ream to Arsenal, West Brom or Everton, even aside from the klutzy faceplant act, the Red Bulls conceded the most goals (53) in the league this season. Hardly compelling credentials.

The commentators made a meal of Henry facing Keane for the first time since Henry’s double handball denied Ireland the 2010 World Cup by setting up a William Gallas goal, but they predicted the wrong scufflers on that one.

Instead, a postmatch melee erupted at the final whistle involving the Galaxy’s Donovan (alleged trash talker), Adam Cristman (shover) and Brazilian midfielder Juninho (face elbower) against Mexican defender Rafael Márquez (ball thrower, puncher and Academy Award hopeful) and defender Stephen Keel (face elbowee) from Red Bulls. Donovan may or may not have said something snipish to Márquez, who grabbed the game ball and fired it at Donovan’s leg. Bodies closed in, Cristman shoved Marquez, who retaliated with a punch, later falling down from a phantom air blow. Juninho, meanwhile, delivered an actual punch to Stephen Keel’s face. Márquez and Juninho both earned red cards and now miss out on Thursday’s match.

Juninho’s lone goal against Honduran club Motagua fired the Galaxy into the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals in March 2012. The Galaxy will face one of Salvadorian club Isidro Metapan, Seattle Sounders or Toronto FC. The loss of Juninho, on loan from São Paulo, in the current match presents L.A. with a selection headache, while many in the Red Bulls fanbase see the erratic Márquez missing out as a plus.

Real Salt Lake awaits in the Western Conference finals, having sealed a 3-2 aggregate win over Seattle Sounders, who went into last night’s second leg with a three goal deficit. Both teams shut each other out on home soil, but Salt Lake’s 2-0 victory last night fell just short of forcing extra time.