Photo by Howard C. Smith/ISIphotos.com
By AVI CREDITOR
Three of Major League Soccer's top teams will be in action Thursday night, as the New York Red Bulls welcome a short-handed Columbus Crew side to Red Bull Arena and FC Dallas welcomes the Los Angeles Galaxy, sans Edson Buddle and Landon Donovan, to Pizza Hut Park.
The Eastern Conference tilt (ESPN2, 8 p.m.) pits the top two teams in the table against each other, though Columbus will be without Chad Marshall and Robbie Rogers (national team camp) and Guillermo Barros Schelotto (suspension).
The good news for the unbeaten Crew (4-0-2) is that goalkeeper Will Hesmer has been upgraded from doubtful to probable in the span of a day. He has been battling a lower back strain.
New York (5-3-0), which has a one-point lead over the Crew but has played in two more games, will look to exploit Columbus' absences, but the two-time defending Supporters' Shield holders have enough depth to keep things competitive.
In the Western Conference matchup (8:30 p.m., MLS Direct Kick), Los Angeles begins life without its two biggest playmakers and will rely on its stellar defense to carry the load.
The undefeated Galaxy (7-0-2) have conceded just two goals all season despite a rash of injuries that has stricken the back unit. Goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts is listed as questionable, but Josh Saunders has proven to be a very capable backup if Bruce Arena needs his services.
First-year midfielder Michael Stephens figures to bear more of the burden in carrying the attack with Buddle and Donovan training for the World Cup. Mike Magee will have to emerge up top for the Galaxy to remain dangerous on both sides of the ball.
Dallas is missing a key piece of its puzzle, with Heath Pearce at national team camp as well. While Pearce excels at moving forward from the back, the Hoops' attack really needs to flow through Dax McCarty and Jeff Cunningham, though the duo will find it difficult to get through whichever foursome Arena starts in defense.
Predictions: New York 1, Columbus 0; L.A. 1, Dallas 0
Columbus' absences are too much to overcome, and Juan Pablo Angel slots home a PK in a game barren of many offensive threats.
Omar Gonzalez scores off a set piece, and Los Angeles maintains its stellar form in the back to remain unbeaten.
What are your predictions for each match? Do you think Columbus can hang with New York despite all of its absences? Who do you expect to pick up the scoring load for the Galaxy?
Share your thoughts below.