Red Bulls vs Galaxy: What a Difference Five Months Makes

When last they met, on May 7 at the Home Depot Center, New York and Los Angeles were the top two teams in Major League Soccer. The Red Bulls were 4-1-2 (with, according to Will Kuhns of the league office, 10 goals for and just two against) and the Galaxy were 4-1-3 (with 10 GF, 7 GA).

The game ended in a 1-1 tie, with both teams coming close to nabbing a winner: Landon Donovan rounded New York keeper Bouna Coundoul and sent the ball rolling toward the open net … only to see Tim Ream charge back and make a sliding clearance at the goal line; and the Red Bulls’ Dane Richards hit the post late in the second half.

Now, a few hours before their second game of 2011, tonight at Red Bull Arena (8:00 p.m. ET, ESPN2), Los Angeles is 18-3-10 and one win away from locking up the Supporters’ Shield, while New York is 8-7-16 and holding on for dear life to the 10th and final playoff berth.

So what the hell happened? That’s a question that’s been plaguing New York fans since 1996 early summer, and it’s another blog post in and of itself.

But one thing is for certain, the Red Bulls can’t claim injuries derailed their season. In fact, LA has bitten much harder by the injury bug than New York, losing players here and there all season long. Tonight, for example, Galaxy defenders Sean Franklin (knee), Gregg Berhalter (foot), and Leonardo (knee) are all out, while goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts (quadriceps), midfielder Chris Birchall (hamstring) and striker Landon Donovan (quadriceps) are questionable (and striker Robbie Keane is away on international duty).

The Galaxy has produced the league’s best record despite all of the injuries because they’ve gotten contributions from everyone on their roster. Bruce Arena’s system has worked, it seems, no matter who gets plugged into it. He’s trusted his bench to perform, and his bench players have rewarded that trust.

New York coach Hans Backe, on the other hand, has been famous for his limited rotation, and the team traded away much of its depth this season, shipping out players like Tony Tchani, Danleigh Borman and Austin da Luz.

Despite the teams’ paths in opposite directions since their May 7 matchup, New York has to like their chances tonight: They should—should—be highly motivated, they’re at home, the Galaxy is missing the above-mentioned players, and this will be LA’s fourth game in 10 days.

Here’s a glimpse of the highlights and postgame comments from New York after the first meeting. It was a simpler time, and we were so much younger:

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