BY ADAM SERRANO
Landon Donovan, David Beckham, Rafael Marquez, and Juan Pablo Angel.
Despite the loss of Thierry Henry and Omar Gonzalez, Friday's clash (ESPN2: 8pm, PDT)between the Los Angeles Galaxy and New York Red Bulls is not lacking star power. With the Galaxy leading the league with 50 points and the Red Bulls in second place in the Eastern Conference, the match has major implications for not only MLS Cup, but the Supporters Shield as well. Having played in a number of big games during his tenure with the Galaxy, Donovan is confident about Los Angeles' ability to perform in big games.
"The thing with playing for the Galaxy is every time we play a game it’s the other team’s biggest game of the year, whether we’re at home or whether we’re away," said Donovan. "We get the best of everybody but when there’s a special occasion when there’s something at stake like there is at Friday, not only with the standings and pride and East-West rivalry it makes it a little more special for us and we generally do well in those games."
Many feared that much of the publicity for the match would be lost when Henry was ruled out with a injury that will lower the Designated player total from an astounding five to a more manageable four. For New York, Henry's absence should signal the return of Juan Pablo Angel to the starting line up paired with Ibrahim Salou up top and recent addition Mehdi Ballouchy in the slot behind them.
Ballouchy's presence will be vital as the playmaker enjoyed a fine debut for New York against FC Dallas, scoring a goal and going 90 in the Red Bulls 2-2 draw. New York has typically found success in controlling possession and catching their opponents on the break and with this plan, the passing ability of Ballouchy is vital. For Red Bulls manager Hans Backe, controlling the midfield battle is integral for success against Los Angeles.
"I think that we play well when we sit down and go in for breaks and we try to this, but sometimes we can look like a passive team that doesn't defend well when we drop back, " said Backe in a recent league conference call. "Our possession game is very, very important and the right decision making when to attack and where to attack and take advantage of the breaks when we get them."
While New York will be without their star striker, the Galaxy will be missing their starting back line pairing as Gregg Berhalter remains sidelined with injury and Gonzalez was suspended for yellow card accumulation in last week's match against DC United. With both first choice options unavailable, expect Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena to call upon Leonardo and Yohance Marshall to start at center back.
One battle that will garner a lot of attention is the Galaxy's attackers against the Red Bulls stiff midfield. In the two clubs last meeting on August 14th, the Red Bulls midfield of Marquez and Tony Tchani struggled to contain the Galaxy's playmakers Donovan and Juninho. After letting the pair run rampant in the first match, Backe refuses to allow that to happen again.
"They find place for themselves and they’re able to break an organization, we need to try to keep our back four and midfield so tight that it’s possible we can close down the space for players like that," said Backe. "I can only hope that our back four and midfield can be that type that we don’t allow that space for Juninho because he can be a key player for those killer passes."
Much of the focus on Galaxy will still be focused around midfielder David Beckham.The 35-year-old who is steadily returning from injury is expected to go at least the 37 minutes that he was able to go in last week's contest and may be an option to go 45 minutes.
Even most of the big names set to play a part in tonight's match, Arena believes that the buzz generated for the game was never really centered around the players.
"A lot of the hype in the game is we finally have the two big markets in the league that have had teams that have performed fairly well over the season," said Arena. "It’s a classic matchup of the big cities in the league that means something which we haven’t had before. Red Bulls are still in position to win the regular season in the Eastern Conference and we’re still in position to do that in the west so that’s a big game in itself."
Here are our SBI predictions for the two starting line ups.
LOS ANGELES GALAXY
NEW YORK RED BULLS
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