Major League Soccer has long been a league fueled by events. In a country filled with soccer enthusiasts who shun their domestic league, it often takes a big-name club or player to get fans out to the stadium. While a mid-week league match between Kansas City and San Jose might only draw 10,000 fans, a friendly between Barcelona and the Los Angeles Galaxy will sell out the Rose Bowl.
This week, the stars have aligned to create perhaps the biggest event in MLS history. Sure, past championship games have been important, but the anticipation is typically limited to the fans of the participating clubs. This Friday’s match between the Galaxy and the New York Red Bulls is one that has long been circled on the calendars of fans from all around the globe.
Starting with the arrival of David Beckham in 2007, MLS has seen a steady influx of star players from around the world, best highlighted by New York’s recent summer signings, Thierry Henry and Rafael Marquez. While Henry will miss the match on Friday with an MCL sprain, the storylines emanating from training grounds and the media are captivating.
It is an easy sell for both the league and soccer journalists, no matter how it’s spun. On one hand, there is Landon Donovan, the United States’ World Cup hero, suiting up for the Galaxy, against the Mexican national team captain in Marquez. On the other, there will be a battle of former English Premier League stars in New York captain Juan Pablo Angel and Beckham, who is currently in line to make his first start of the season in his return from a devastating Achilles injury.
And those are simply the head-to-head matchups on the field. More importantly, this match will set the tone for the remainder of the MLS season, adding drama to the race for the Supporters’ Shield and providing boundless hope for the fans of the victor.
Through 25 matches, the Galaxy are at the top of the league standings, in large part due to a blistering start to the season that saw them go 12 games unbeaten. Since that torrid start, however, the Galaxy have cooled down considerably. Recent wins against the Columbus Crew and D.C. United have re-ignited the belief that Los Angeles is an MLS Cup contender, but the same victories have also prominently displayed their weaknesses.
Last weekend’s win over United, far-and-away the worst team in MLS this year, was the product of Landon Donovan throwing the team on his back and refusing to lose, a la the U.S. – Algeria match at the World Cup this summer. The Galaxy fell behind in the 60th minute to an Andy Najar goal, before Donovan put his talents on display, bagging both the equalizer and game-winner, the latter on a precision header he lofted just out of the reach of the D.C. goalkeeper. Throughout the match, Galaxy defensive deficiencies were very apparent, with Najar constantly causing turmoil in the LA backline. It was the fifth consecutive match in which the Galaxy had allowed a goal, a stark contrast to the defense that gave up just two goals in the first 11 matches of the season.
The Red Bulls sit deceptively low in the standings, in fifth place with 41 points through 25 matches. They possess more firepower and talent than any other team in the league, but their point total is handicapped by the fact that their major acquisitions did not join the team until late in the summer. Still, New York has quietly been a top team since the end of May, having lost just three league matches over that span.
Henry’s injury certainly puts a damper on both the day’s festivities and the New York attack, but recent acquisition Mehdi Ballouchy has shown a nose for goal already, scoring in his Red Bull debut last week. He will likely start up top with Angel, the two providing a dynamic attacking threat against a suddenly decrepit Galaxy defense.
The game will almost certainly be won or lost, however, in midfield, where the Marquez–Donovan matchup will take
As an optimistic Red Bulls fan, I say that the Bulls will win, 2-1, with Angel and Dane Richards scoring for New York, and Beckham electrifying the home crowd with a stunning free kick. No matter the result, Friday’s winner will be the consensus favorite to lift the Alan Rothenberg Trophy at MLS Cup in November.