By Paul Gardner
Saturday afternoon, with a little over 24 hours to go before the Red Bulls take on the Los Angeles Galaxy, I was staring glumly out of my Manhattan window. At a snowstorm. Bad enough, but it will be worse out there in New Jersey, it always is. Out in New Jersey, where the New York Red Bulls play. That’s the pseudo-New York team that faces the Galaxy in the first playoff to decide the Western Conference championship.
I gather it’s like 80 degrees back in LA, so a real New York welcome awaits the Galaxy. Or a New Jersey welcome. Obviously, geography doesn’t matter to MLS. And I can’t get greatly excited about it either. The Bulls already won the Western Conference once, in 2008, and no thunderbolts were hurled at anyone, and the world did not collapse, so it’s fine with me.
But if I don’t give a fig about the geography, I care a great deal about the soccer. The snow -- or the slush or the ice or the rain or the cold, whatever mixture we get on Sunday -- is not helpful if you’re looking for decent soccer. And I am. Despite years of convincing evidence that the quality of MLS soccer turns sour when the playoffs arrive, I shall hope for the best.
Actually, for this particular match-up there is absolutely no reason at all to be optimistic. A game between the two most expensively assembled teams in MLS ought to mean MLS at its best. But there is no chance of that.
Both teams have been consistently unattractive throughout the season. To their often banal performances on the field, the Red Bulls have managed to add a totally unwarranted arrogance off it -- exemplified by GM Erik Soler telling all the other Eastern Conference teams that they could forget about that title as the Red Bulls had it sewn up.
That was just before the Bulls started playing like a drain, losing game after game until they had to rely on an unlikely collapse by D.C. United to allow them to sneak in as the 10th, and worst, of the playoff qualifiers. So now they have a chance to win the Western Conference! Maybe Soler was mis-quoted?
There has been very little stylish soccer from the Bulls. And as the playoffs have arrived, things have gotten worse. Their last regular season game, against Philadelphia, was painful to watch, an ugly 1-0 win based on clumsy defense and long balls played up to the inelegant but energetic Luke Rodgers. The less said about the Bulls’ ragged 2-0 win in Dallas the better.
There will be nothing worth watching from the Red Bulls. So how about the mighty Galaxy, then, the team with the best record in MLS? The outlook is equally grim there. Something has happened to Bruce Arena, for sure. This is not the coach who, at Virginia, produced the liveliest, and best, college team I’ve ever seen, then went on to coach D.C. United -- still the most stylish champion MLS has ever had. Arena’s national team was certainly not a defensive team, either.
But this Galaxy -- this team with two of the league’s best offensive players (well, make that one-and-a-half -- I’m sure about Landon Donovan, much less so about the sainted David Beckham) relies heavily on its defense to win games.
This is a one-goal team. It knows how to make the most of a single score. Nearly half of its wins (nine out of 19) were by the minimum 1-0 scoreline. There were also four 1-1 and four 0-0 ties. That's 17 games - exactly half the number of regular season games - in which the Galaxy picked up 35 points out of a possible 51 by never scoring more than one goal in a game.
In six games the Galaxy did manage to score two goals (four wins and two ties). There were, to be sure, four 3-goal games and two 4-goal games; meaning that 20 of the Galaxy’s goals came in those six games, with half of them scored against expansion teams (7 against Vancouver, 3 against Portland).
So this is not a high-scoring team -- Kansas, Seattle, D.C. United and New York scored more. But in the goals-against column, the Galaxy ruled the roost. They conceded only 28 times -- eight goals fewer than nearest rivals, Philadelphia and Salt Lake.
There you have it. Despite Donovan’s undoubted attacking skills and his 12 goals, despite Beckham’s miracle crosses and his seven game-winning assists (which sounds like a new category to me, one invented to make sure the golden boy wins something), the Galaxy is a stolid defensively oriented team that generates very little on the excitement front.
Do not expect either of the Arenas -- the Red Bull one, and the Bruce version -- to offer much that looks like good soccer today. After all, on top of their threadbare records in that aspect of the game, we have to acknowledge that this is playoff time, time to get down and dirty and all those other excuses that get paraded as a justification for playing turgid soccer.
I shall persist with my optimism, in the face of all this discouraging evidence. Maybe I’ll forget the good soccer part, and settle simply for an eventful game. What I’m relying on now is ... the weather. The game must be played, whatever the conditions. An ice-coated field seems to me to offer the best chance of something exciting actually happening during this clash between two teams who both got a jump on the playoffs by opting, months ago, to renounce any attempt to play attractive soccer.