New York proves the real contender

It was supposed to be an MLS Cup final preview, but only one team played like it.

It was supposed to be a night when star players shined, but lesser-known standouts emerged.

The New York Red Bulls didn’t just beat the Los Angeles Galaxy in Friday night’s marquee showdown. They dominated the MLS leaders for the better part of 90 minutes and served notice that they are, in fact, a title contender while Los Angeles was left with more questions than answers as the MLS playoffs draw closer.

New York’s 2-0 victory was a product of stellar midfield play and impeccable defensive organization as Hans Backe’s 4-5-1 smothered the Galaxy’s 4-4-2 for much of the night. Even with David Beckham making his first start of the season, Los Angeles had few answers for New York’s midfield, which out-worked and out-classed their Galaxy counterparts.

The match featured four Designated Players, four million-dollar difference makers, but it was New York’s less expensive midfielders who stole the show. From wingers Dane Richards and Joel Lindpere, who kept pressure on the Galaxy’s fullbacks and combined to score New York‘s first goal, to central midfielders Tony Tchani and Mehdi Ballouchy, who helped New York control tempo and limit the Galaxy’s opportunities, there were impressive performances all over the field for the Red Bulls.

And for the Galaxy? Not so much. The back line struggled to deal with New York‘s wingers, the midfield failed to generate chances and the forwards were largely quiet, failing to truly test Red Bulls goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul.

As for the game’s marquee players? Neither Landon Donovan or David Beckham could put their stamp on the game, and while Juan Pablo Angel was also ineffective for New York, Rafa Marquez played a major role in New York’s midfield dominance. He provided a constant outlet for Red Bulls defenders and made it difficult for Galaxy playmakers to find space to create.

Friday’s masterful performance came as a bit of a surprise considering New York played without star forward Thierry Henry, and considering their last match (a 2-2 tie vs. FC Dallas) was hardly awe-inspiring. Against Dallas, New York’s midfield was out-hustled and out-worked despite the Red Bulls having a man advantage for more than a half. On Friday night, New York clearly learned from that display, playing one of its best matches of the season.

Among the subplots on Friday was the continued emergence of Ballouchy. The newly-acquired midfielder has blended in perfectly since arriving from Colorado and will leave Hans Backe with the tough decision of whether to stick with a 4-5-1 and leave team scoring leader Juan Pablo Angel on the bench when Henry returns, or to play Angel and Henry together and potentially sit Tchani. Given Backe’s glowing praise of Ballouchy after Friday’s match, it is unlikely Ballouchy will be leaving the lineup any time soon.

On Friday, it was clear that the central midfield trio of Ballouchy, Marquez and Tchani can control a match. Between Ballouchy’s mobility, Tchani’s aerial dominance and physical presence, and Marquez’s technical brilliance, it will become increasing difficult for Backe to break the trio up. Angel will make the decision easier if he can’t perform better than he has in recent weeks.

The Galaxy’s issues are tougher to pin-point. It is easier to point to the absence of starting central defenders Omar Gonzalez and Gregg Berhalter as a key factor in Friday’s loss, but the fact remains Los Angeles lost the game in midfield. It can be argued that the Galaxy is sorely missing the energy and pace provided by standout youngsters Michael Stephens and Tristan Bowen, who have seen their roles diminish later in the season. Bowen clearly provided some energy once he came into the match, but by then the Red Bulls had put the game on cruise control.

You could point a finger at Donovan, who was largely ineffective on Friday, but he’s a player who needs his teammates to be moving and finding space and working with him to generate chances. Far too often, Donovan looked like a lonely conductor, with no musicians to help play his tune.

It will be up to Bruce Arena to find the right midfield combination to recapture the early-season form that made Los Angeles look untouchable. Beckham regaining his fitness will be key, but the central midfield will need to step up its game if the Galaxy is going to emerge from a tough Western Conference in the playoffs.

After Friday’s performance, it suddenly seems like less of a sure bet that Los Angeles will make a return to the MLS Cup Final, but after yet another strong outing, New York clearly has the look of a team capable of playing for a championship come November.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.