[MLS SPOTLIGHT: GALAXY-RED BULLS] The two MLS teams that would be Superclubs play Saturday (11 p.m. ET, ESPN2/Deportes) when the Galaxy hosts New York at Home Depot Center. Whatever the result when the two biggest-spending teams square off Saturday night in Southern California, league officials in New York and team officials around the country hope the country takes notice.
Last week, Fox Soccer announced its TV ratings from the Champions League semifinals nearly doubled from last year’s numbers, but there’s been no such news emanating from MLS headquarters. If anything can move the needle for a regular-season game, the average rating for which on the ESPN networks hover around 0.2, a game featuring David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Thierry Henry would seem to be it.
Solid performances this season and the relative health of both squads lend hope that it can offer further evidence of where these teams rank in the upper tier. The Galaxy, with a 4-2-3 record, tops the Western Conference but it lost to FC Dallas, 2-1, last Sunday in a game delayed more than an hour by a lightning storm. The Red Bulls (4-1-2), have lost only at Philadelphia, 1-0, and since that defeat have beaten San Jose, D.C. United, and Sporting Kansas City by combined scores of 8-0.
“The only difference in the last few games is that we put the ball in the back of the net and it makes a difference when you score in the game,” said Henry in a media teleconference call. “The way we play didn’t change.”
Unlike the RSL-Galaxy match played on the second weekend of the season and on the same day that the U.S. national team played Argentina in a friendly, the Galaxy-Red Bulls clash has no such conflict. RSL thumped the Galaxy, 4-1, in that showcase match, and if added incentive is needed for the home team, in last year’s corresponding game New York took home a 2-0 victory.
This game also has another juicy sidelight: a star player who changed one big club for another, in this case, Colombian forward Juan Pablo Angel. Midway through last season, his fourth in MLS, the Red Bulls advised him to start looking around for a new address. He finished the season with 13 goals, which upped his league tally to 58.
No player scored more MLS goals during that span, but so far he hasn’t done much since signing with Los Angeles via the Re-Entry Draft. He has one goal and one assists in 520 minutes (eight games). But opponents must still be wary of his abilities, and he can open up space for other attackers. One of his front-line partners, Chad Barrett, has scored twice this season. Donovan leads the Galaxy with three goals, Beckham is tops in assists with four.
“He’s another guy who, along with Frankie [Hejduk], makes our team better,” says Donovan of Angel. “On the field, they make our team a lot better, and off the field you can’t really gauge how important that is, because the younger guys watch them and how they do things and that’s invaluable.”
Angel’s replacement, English League journeyman Luke Rodgers, has looked busy and dangerous. Last week, he put away a feed from Dwayne De Rosario on a play triggered by Henry to down SKC, 1-0. Like De Rosario, Rodgers – though he lacks the polish of many teammates -- has speed and explosiveness, two facets of play that are often effective in the hustle-bustle of MLS. His play has shunted American teenager Juan Agudelo to the bench, though the long-term health of Henry is questionable enough that both should play plenty over a 34-game season.
What has been described by New York coach Hans Backe as a “tight groin” has impaired midfield connector Teemu Taino, whose smart, tidy play will be missed if he’s unavailable. Last year, Joel Linpere played that role before being moved to left mid when Rafael Marquez was acquired in midseason. A move to the back line for Marquez has worked well so far, as the touch and quickness of Tim Ream covers for Marquez’s occasionally languid reactions.
A midfield duel between young Brazilian Juninho and savvy Finnish veteran Taino would be a fascinating one. Whether or not it transpires, with both teams capable of building attacks as well as launching them swiftly, sloppy transitions when the ball turns over will be costly. And if one team should win, it will climb atop the overall standings.
“It’s a game that’s different from the others because these are the two teams that have invested more money and they’re in first place of their conference,” said Márquez. “They have some of the most important players on these two teams and this makes this game more important."