The technical ability displayed by both sides in 1-1 tie at the Home Depot Center on Saturday night reinforces their MLS Cup ambitions.
In a season where distasteful stories about injuries and referees have grabbed a significant share of the attention and continued to make news this weekend, Los Angeles and New York placed the focus firmly back on the field in time for Saturday night's 1-1 draw.
The presence of luminaries like David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Rafa Marquez and Thierry Henry guarantees attention in each meeting between the sides, but the quality of this match actually merited the scrutiny for the on-field fare.
Los Angeles and New York lived up to their billing as two of the top three clubs in MLS and produced an encouraging and entertaining display – particularly in the first half – that likely rates as the top game of the season to date.
A heartening display of technical ability across the field distinguished this affair from the typical MLS encounter. Both sides – plus Real Salt Lake, the third member of the current triumvirate – have carved out a place at the top of the heap because they possess squads filled with players that marshal a higher standard of skill on the ball and in possession.
Such quality doesn't always shine through in the mire and muck often found in engine rooms across the country, but the conditions on Saturday night created the opportunity for a decent passing game. Both teams pressed selectively – the Galaxy used high pressure to good effect at the start of the second half, for example – to retain a solid defensive shape without allowing one or two passes to beat several players.
The ample space conceded through midfield allowed Los Angeles and New York to connect passes with regularity. Simple combination play comes naturally given the ability of the involved midfield players, but the range of passing did plenty to encourage inventive play and stretch out the match during an engaging first half.
Most of the damage came from raking long diagonal balls from deep-lying positions in central midfield. Beckham, in particular, sprayed the ball effectively because Dwayne De Rosario didn't really bother to restrict his space in removed areas often enough.
While Beckham and the Galaxy preferred to switch the point of attack with those pinpoint diagonals, the Red Bulls – often through Marquez, but also with either De Rosario or Mehdi Ballouchy – opted for more of an inside-out ball toward the corners to exploit their pace advantage in the space behind the Los Angeles fullbacks.
The mixture of short and long passing from both teams inevitably pushed the tempo and prompted several chances in the open first half. Neither side really exhibited clinical finishing in front of goal, but the two goals struck the right balance given the run of play.
Henry's opener after four minutes displayed a level of confidence and skill boasted by few, if any, other strikers in the league. Only Dane Richards can explain whether he meant to play De Rosario or Henry with his diagonal ball, but there were no lingering doubts about the finish. Henry coolly retained his composure as he latched onto Richards' pass and checked his run long enough to slide the ball back across goal and into the far side of the net.
Donovan's equalizer highlighted his awareness and New York's defensive failings on corner kicks. Corner kicks befuddled the Red Bulls in the first half as their mixed marking system strained against the Galaxy's mess of runners. Marquez played a role in Chad Barrett's near miss after nine minutes by underestimating the distance of Beckham's service when he should have cleared and repeated his mistake four minutes before halftime.
Donovan made a neat little run from inside the goal area out toward the far post and easily nodded the delivery home to exploit the gap in marking and level the proceedings.
(Note on New York's defensive approach on corner kicks: In theory, the Red Bulls should have had plenty of coverage. New York creates a box of four players (two on the posts, two on the edge of the goal area) at the outset and usually leaves another free to provide further zonal protection. The other available players pick up a man. With New York's assortment of defensive positions in these situations, it is a system that should work more often than not, but there is one fundamental underpinning that went missing against Los Angeles. For the approach to work, the two or three players on the six need to attack the ball in the air and clear the danger if it enters their area. This last component faltered badly on the Galaxy's first two corner kicks and cost the Red Bulls on Donovan's goal.)
Beckham and Donovan should have combined for the second moments later. Beckham's delightfully clipped ball caught New York high and flat at the back as Donovan raced through on a diagonal run from the right wing. Donovan did all of the hard work to trap off his thigh and elude Coundoul, but he took his finish too casually and the rolled effort permitted the hustling Tim Ream to make a wonderful slide to clear the ball off the line.
Following up the first half presented a difficult task, but the second stanza did offer up its own bit of intrigue without the back and forth romp. Both teams generated another slew of chances in the second half – Angel and second-half sub Juan Agudelo squandered headers, Beckham forced a save from a free kick and Richards rang the post – but the tempo inevitably slowed a bit as the game settled. The quality, however, did not dip appreciably as the two teams ultimately settled for a deserved share of the points.
The vibrant match served as a welcome advertisement for the quality on offer in MLS on certain nights. As New York coach Hans Backe correctly asserted after the match, this particular game would not have looked out of place in many European leagues. It may just end up as one positive outlier in a long season, but this two-hour window provided some temporary relief from the distressing talking points in recent weeks and reinforced the MLS Cup credentials for both clubs.
Five Points – Week 8
1. Where were all of the goals?: In stark contrast to the entertaining fare offered up in Carson on Saturday night, the other seven matches yielded seven goals and three scoreless draws. There were interesting moments here and there, but the vast majority of the entertainment on the weekend occurred in southern California.
2. Tough call on save of the weekend: Ream may claim the gong with his desperate slide to somehow hook Donovan's effort off the line, but he will face strong competition from Kevin Hartman. The FC Dallas goalkeeper somehow dove across the face of goal to snuff out Fred's header in the waning moments of a 0-0 draw with D.C. United.
3. Midweek warriors keep working through the weekend: Three out of the four teams that played on Wednesday – Colorado (0-0 at New England), D.C. United (the nil-nil stalemate with FCD) and Seattle (1-1 at Columbus) – registered points on Saturday. Only Houston failed to keep up appearances after its 2-1 defeat at Toronto FC.
4. Morales injury will test Real Salt Lake's collective mentality: RSL schemer Javier Morales became the third prominent attacking player to sustain a severe injury in less than a month after he suffered a dislocation fracture of his left ankle in Saturday's 1-0 victory over nine-man Chivas USA. Morales is set to undergo surgery today and will miss a minimum of four months after Red-and-White forward Marcos Mondaini clattered into him from behind with a typical striker's tackle after 38 minutes.
While RSL has forged a formidable team ethos over the past couple of years, the Claret-and-Cobalt will miss its principal attacking protagonist. There are potential replacements – Andy Williams probably constitutes the most natural option, though Ned Grabavoy also could play there – in the squad, but RSL will have to dig deep and shake off its recent profligacy to compensate for Morales' loss and return to top form.
5. Recent events place Disciplinary Committee in a bind: After the decisions handed down in the Jonathan Leathers/David Ferreira (no foul called, no suspension) and Brian Mullan/Steve Zakuani (ten total games and a $5,000 fine) situations, the MLS Disciplinary Committee must somehow find a way to mete out the proper punishment to Mondaini for his clumsy tackle.
Chivas USA coach Robin Fraser and RSL boss Jason Kreis downplayed the severity of the foul in their remarks after the match, but it remains to be seen how much the Disciplinary Committee will weigh Morales' injury in its considerations.
With all precedent now seemingly up for debate after the Mullan outcome so flagrantly dismissed it, the final punishment could land just about anywhere on the spectrum given the ramifications of the desperate lunge.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.Follow Goal.com on to get the latest soccer news directly. Check out Goal.com's page; be part of the best soccer fan community in the world!