[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 coach Mike Petke refused 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
“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
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 Juninho and 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
“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
“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.”