[MLS PLAYOFFS: Sunday Preview]The Galaxy has beaten Houston in the last two MLS Cups, and they are poised again to renew their recent postseason histories.
Both are lower seeds in their conference semifinals and haven’t done well on the road, so in their home legs to be played Sunday a solid victory would seem to be essential. Yet both also came through the play-in round last year and reached the final by winning on the road, so they have histories of defying the odds when it matters most.
Here’s the rundown on what they face on Sunday:
HOUSTON-NEW YORK (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC).Not since 2008 have the Red Bulls played in the championship game and never in team history have they entered the postseason with the best regular-season record, and their rookie head coach is going up against a counterpart, Dominic Kinnear, with two league titles and four MLS Cup appearances on his resume.
Before his team clinched a playoff spot, head coachMike Petkerefused to speculate on how well his team might perform in the postseason, and winning the Supporters’ Shield hasn’t encouraged him to peer into the future. But he does offer a few clues when he looks at the recent past.
“The one thing that I’ve been proud of is that we’ve stepped up in many big games and gotten the job done,” says Petke. “Obviously, the things that have concerned me is our road play, up until the Houston game.” To that one might ask, “Which one?”
In their last two meetings the Red Bulls have thrashed the Dynamo at BBVA Compass Stadium: 4-1 on Sept. 8, and 3-0 less than two weeks ago. They also prevailed, 2-0, at Red Bull Arena June 30, so there’s definitely a back story of Red Bull domination.
Yet the Dynamo players looked like their playoff selves in dismantling Montreal, 3-0, at BBVA Thursday night. New York may have the glittering array of stars (Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, Jamison Olave, Fabian Espindola) but Houston has a good blend of attackers (Brad Davis, Oscar Boniek Garcia, Will Bruin, Giles Barnes) and gritty grinders (Ricardo Clark, Bobby Boswell). And unlike this current Red Bull squad, they've been there before.
LOS ANGELES-REAL SALT LAKE (9 p.m. ET, ESPN).Though their histories go back nearly a decade, to RSL’s entry as an expansion team in 2005, their meeting in Seattle for MLS Cup 2009 really kicked off a rivalry.
Upstart RSL prevailed on penalty kicks after a 1-1 tie, and despite both teams reaching the playoffs every season since, this is only their second postseason matchup since that 2009 final. The Galaxy prevailed, 3-1, in the 2011 Western Conference final that was a one-off game.
Thus, this is the first time these bitter rivals will meet in a two-leg playoff. There will be plenty of tactical and strategic maneuvering between two of the league’s best head coaches, Jason Kreis and Bruce Arena, and the intensity levels at StubHub Center and Rio Tinto Stadium should be off the charts.
Of the three regular-season games played this year, the Galaxy took a 4-2 victory Aug. 17 in the only meeting at StubHub Center. Yet it also won, 2-0, at Rio Tinto April 27, when RSL was missing forwards Alvaro Saborio and Robbie Findley because of injuries and still adjusting to the offseason departures of former stalwarts Espindola, Olave, and Will Johnson, now at Portland. Scoring for the Galaxy that night were Mike Magee, since traded to Chicago, and seldom-used first-round draft pick Charlie Rugg.
That defeat dropped RSL’s record to 3-4-2. Since then it has gone 13-6-6, and along the way atoned for that Rio Tinto defeat by winning a home rematch June 8, 3-1, on a pair of goals by substitute Olmes Garcia. He finished the season with five goals in 24 appearances and hasn’t scored since July 13. Injuries and international commitments limited Saborio to just 16 games, yet he led RSL with 12 goals. He's scored three goals in his last four games.
The Galaxy’s 4-2 win featured a hat trick by Robbie Keane, who led the team in goals (16) and assists (11). The obvious threat posed by Keane and Landon Donovan, a formidable Brazilian midfield pairing of Juninhoand Marcelo Sarvas, a solid back line anchored by Omar Gonzalez, and the late-season emergence of keeper Jaime Penedo has Kreis respectful, as one should be of a two-time defending champion.
“It's a huge challenge and an opportunity for us to play an incredibly good team — a team that, when we played them this year, proved to be better than us,” Kreis told Salt Lake City reporters.
One key element will be the return of centerback Chris Schuler to the RSL lineup. He missed the August game when Keane ran wild. Schuler brings the physical presence once supplied by Olave, and for all the praise of RSL’s skillful style and polished play orchestrated by playmaker Javier Morales, its success is also rooted in rugged, cohesive defense anchored by centerback Nat Borchers and dynamic midfield fulcrum Kyle Beckerman.
“It's something anybody that plays for our team needs to recognize,” Kreis said. “We can't just allow forwards to have an easy day against us. I felt that too often this entire season we've allowed that.”