HARRISON, N.J. — You can’t say it didn’t live up to the billing. Hyped for days as the marquee bicoastal rivalry, the first leg of the Western Conference Semifinal between the New York Red Bulls and the LA Galaxy proved to be every bit as impassioned and controversial as you’d expect from true rivals.
And when the final whistle blew, the Supporters’ Shield-winning Galaxy left Red Bull Arena with a 1-0 victory, thanks to a first-half goal from Mike Magee.
The victory gives the Galaxy a one-goal aggregate lead heading into next Thursday’s second leg (11 pm ET, ESPN2, Deportes).
The match was punctuated by frequent hard tackles, several heart-stopping close chances at both ends and a melee on the field after the final whistle that saw New York’s Rafa Márquez and LA’s Juninho red-carded. They will both now miss next week’s match.
The match started cautiously, and then sprung to life in the 12th minute, when Robbie Keane struck the post with a curler.
Three minutes later, Magee put away the winning goal. David Beckham struck a one-time ball up and over the top as the New York backline stepped forward. Magee beat the offside trap, collected the ball, and fired a left-footed volley past NYRB goalkeeper Frank Rost.
On the play, it appeared that Robbie Keane was in an offside position. Seeing this, Rost and the New York defense seemed to stop playing when Beckham played the initial ball. But replays indicated that Keane was not involved in the action.
New York, who were missing attack-minded defender Jan Gunnar Solli, failed to gather any momentum. And the organized LA defense snuffed out every Red Bulls attack. Centerback Omar Gonzalez, in particular, was dominating, denying Thierry Henry space and time on the ball.
If the Red Bulls actually got a shot off, Josh Saunders — in for Donovan Ricketts on a coach’s decision — was there to make the save or gather up the cross.
Saunders would become the focus of the match after the break. The Red Bulls came out of the locker room with more energy, and had several within a minute Dane Richards ran in on goal alone. But Saunders rushed out and got a hand on Richards’ attempted flick.
Two minutes later, a spectacular bicycle from Henry nearly found the back of the net, but the shot served just wide. And in the 49th minute, a Sean Franklin giveaway fell kindly to Richards. The Jamaican darted into the LA area and served in a tantalizing cross, and Saunders somehow reflexively got a hand to Joel Lindpere’s one-time redirection.
In the 56th minute, Landon Donovan took advantage of a slip from New York’s Tim Ream to go in one on one with Rost. The goalkeeper, however, was up to the task this time.
Meanwhile, the Red Bulls subbed on Mehdi Ballouchy for Rodgers — leaving many fans at Red Bull Arena to wonder why Juan Agudelo was once again left on the bench — but the star of Wednesday’s win over Dallas was unable to repeat his heroics.
Instead, Saunders was the hero one last time. In stoppage time, he dove to his right to block a volley from Márquez that seemed a sure thing. From the LA perspective, it was a win-preserving save; for New York, it was the final frustration on an afternoon of many.
When the whistle blew, that frustration boiled over. Márquez picked up the ball and threw it at Donovan. LA’s Adam Cristman immediately confronted Márquez, who took a swing at the Galaxy striker as players from both teams converged on the scene at midfield. LA’s Juninho struck Stephen Keel, and the rest of the crowd pushed and shoved each other.
What impact the loss of Márquez and Juninho will be to the respective sides remains to be seen. But the emotion of this rivalry will almost certainly be ramped up for next week’s second leg at the Home Depot Center. The Galaxy have not lost at home this season, though the Red Bulls did earn a draw there in May. They will need more than that to advance to the Conference Championship.
LA -- Mike Magee 1 (David Beckham 1) 15
LA -- Sean Franklin (caution; Reckless Foul) 40
NY -- Thierry Henry (caution; Reckless Tackle) 44
NY -- Rafa Marquez (ejection) 90
LA -- Juninho (ejection) 90
LA Galaxy -- Josh Saunders, A.J. DeLaGarza, Omar Gonzalez, Sean Franklin, Todd Dunivant, Mike Magee, David Beckham, Juninho, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane (Chris Birchall 83), Chad Barrett (Adam Cristman 67).
Substitutes Not Used: Paolo Cardozo, Frankie Hejduk, Dasan Robinson, Michael Stephens, Donovan Ricketts.
New York Red Bulls -- Frank Rost, Carlos Mendes, Stephen Keel, Tim Ream, Roy Miller, Dane Richards, Rafael Marquez, Teemu Tainio, Joel Lindpere, Luke Rodgers (Mehdi Ballouchy 80), Thierry Henry.
Substitutes Not Used: Juan Agudelo, Stephane Auvray, Dax McCarty, Bouna Coundoul.
Referee: Alex Prus
Referee's Assistants: George Gansner; Eric Boria
4th Official: Mark Kadlecik
Time of Game: 1:53
Weather: Clear and 45 degrees