CARSON, Calif. – Jan Gunnar Solli has caused a load of problems for opposing clubs this season, but the LA Galaxy won’t have to worry about New York's regular right back on Sunday in the first leg of their Western Conference Semifinal series (3 pm ET, ESPN/ESPN Deportes, live chat on MLSsoccer.com).
The Norwegian was sent off in New York’s 2-0 wild card win at FC Dallas on Wednesday and will have to sit out the first leg of the Red Bulls’ series against the Galaxy. A stalwart on the right side of the defense, Galaxy forwards are relishing the opportunity to not worry about him.
“It’s a huge loss for them,” Chad Barrett said. “They’ll have to fill the gap there on the right side with someone who hasn’t really played. They’re a team who hasn’t really shuffled in a whole lot of players and when they have, they haven’t done great like our team has.”
Solli was in fine form throughout 2011, playing in 31 games and notching seven assists, tying Chivas USA's Ante Jazic for most assists from a defender.
Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe told reporters on Friday that he'll fill the void with Carlos Mendes. And while the Red Bulls veteran has played in 18 games this season and has logged 146 career MLS matches, there is a drop-off in terms of offensive production without Solli in the lineup.
“There’s a huge gap there of course and it’s probably something we’ll look to exploit,” Barrett said.
While Solli is definitely out on Sunday, a player who the Galaxy may do well to avoid altogether is forward Luke Rodgers.
The striker scored nine goals in 23 games despite being hampered with injuries through much of the latter half of the season. He already showed the Galaxy firsthand what he’s capable of, scoring a goal in a 2-0 win over LA at Red Bull Arena on Oct. 4.
“Rodgers is the guy who makes their team tick, and if he’s not on the field, it’s certainly helpful for us,” Galaxy captain Landon Donovan said. “My guess is they’re going to find a way to get him ready.”
The Englishman does well to put himself in good positions in front of the goal.
“He’s a true goal-poacher,” Barrett said. “He works hard and likes to stretch the field for them. Thierry Henry is the guy they like to play to into his feet. He likes to get it, he likes to combine, he’s a great playmaker and he likes to go deep for them.”
Rodgers gives New York a strong weapon that makes the Red Bulls frontline one of the most productive forward units in the league. With Henry’s 14 goals and Juan Agudelo’s six tallies, the Red Bulls got 29 goals from that trio alone.
Still, despite those statistics, Galaxy players are not exactly picking their jaws off the ground.
“Their attack [are] all great players, but it’s nothing that we haven’t seen before,” Barrett said.
Magee: Don't underestimate RBNY
After their midseason collapse and struggle to just reach the playoffs, many observers seemingly overlooked the New York Red Bulls as true MLS Cup contenders.
But at least one Galaxy player knows what happens when the Red Bulls are overlooked in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
Mike Magee was on the 2008 Red Bulls side that reached the club’s one and only MLS Cup final. And while New York are the LA Galaxy’s Western Conference foe now, Magee is one of the few who does not find that situation out of the ordinary.
“When I played with New York, we won the Western Conference, so it’s not too bizarre for me,” he said at training on Thursday. “Every team that’s moved over to a different conference has won so we definitely have to be careful.”
New York were the Western Conference champions in 2008, ousting heavily favored Houston in the first round before upsetting Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium to reach MLS Cup. However, the club’s miracle run ended there as the Columbus Crew beat them in the final, which was played at the Home Depot Center.
While the Galaxy have has a slew of goals before this point – winning the Supporters’ Shield, advancing out of CONCACAF Champions League group play – New York are determined for just one thing, and that will make the club a more difficult foe.
“History has shown that the teams that the teams who squeak in do very well,” Magee said. “I think New York in particular, they’re desperate for an MLS Cup. I know that organization and I know this is all they’re playing for.”
While both New York and the Galaxy have high salaries and world-renowned stars, the similarities end there. The Red Bulls tied half of their games and needed a win in the final match of the season to reach the playoffs. The Galaxy went 19-5-10 and cruised to the top spot in the Western Conference table.
But if the Galaxy view the Red Bulls as anything but a worthy and difficult opponent, they will be in trouble, Magee said.
“It’s a game where we can’t see them as a No. 10 seed," he said. "They’re going to come out and they’re going to play without as much pressure as us and a lot more freely. If we let our guards down, they’ll beat us.”
Luis Bueno covers the LA Galaxy for MLSsoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.