CARSON, Calif. — Throughout the year, LA Galaxy midfielder Juninho has been one of the club's most consistent players. The second-year loanee from Sao Paulo made major strides since his first season and is a key player on both sides of the ball.
Juninho, though, will play no role in Thursday's return leg against New York (11 pm ET, ESPN2/TSN2), but Galaxy coaches have some experience to turn to on the bench.
Chris Birchall has played at the highest level before — World Cup, World Cup qualifying, MLS Cup playoffs. The Trinidad and Tobago international hopes to add Thursday's match to his résumé.
"With the center midfielder we're losing in Juninho, there's only a couple of choices," Birchall told reporters at training on Tuesday. "I haven't been told for definite if it's going to be the case. I'm obviously hoping so because it would be a nice game to step into, but anyone who steps in is going to do a great job because that's the kind of squad we've got."
Birchall appeared in 23 matches this season, a year after logging 25 in helping the Galaxy win the first of two consecutive Supporters' Shield titles. In 2011, Birchall has been part of the rotation at midfield, appearing at times on the right flank in addition to the middle. Against the Red Bulls, Birchall will look to make it tough on opposing attackers who will certainly come into the Home Depot Center with one objective.
"All out attack, really," he said. "They have nothing to lose. They have to win the game. I'm sure that will be the emphasis. With the players they've got, the pace they've got they can do that to anyone on any given day. Hopefully that's not going to be us."
Along with Juninho, Red Bulls midfielder Rafa Márquez also picked up a red card after the match and won’t be available. That will change the Red Bulls’ dynamic a bit, but not necessarily for the worst.
“They won’t have Márquez which hurts their distribution, but they’ll have a guy who is a little bit more central, who is a bit more in position more often,” Galaxy defender Todd Dunivant said. “There are some gives and takes to him being out.”
The two most likely candidates to start will be Dax McCarty and Mehdi Ballouchy.
“The person who can replace Márquez will be a different kind of player and a different kind of a threat whether it’s Dax McCarty who can be a workhorse or Mehdi Ballouchy who is technically very, very good,” Birchall said. “Whoever comes in will be big. It's not like they’re going to bring a player who has no experience.”
Along with Dane Richards at right midfield, New York will have a key weapon at their disposal as right back Jan Gunnar Solli will return after sitting out the first leg due to suspension.
Dunivant will have plenty to keep an eye on.
“They’ll have a little bit more attack down the right side,” he said. “They were a bit more left-sided the last game and with Solli coming back, he’s a good attacking option for them. He always comes forward.”
Solli can whip crosses in with precision – the Norwegian had seven assists during the regular season. Also, Richards can create havoc with his blistering pace.
“The key to him is to really keep him in front of you and make sure he doesn’t get his space,” Dunivant said. “Márquez is such a good distributor of the ball that he found him a couple of times last week so without him that will hurt them a little bit but he’s such a north-south player that he’s always looking to get in behind you and always trying to penetrate.”
Staying disciplined and focused will help minimize the threat, though.
“I just have to do a good job at being in position and generally I am,” Dunivant said. “I just have to keep him at bay.”
Because of an agreement with Cal State Dominguez Hills, the campus upon which the Home Depot Center sits, attendance for Thursday’s playoff match was originally capped at 15,000. However, on Tuesday the club announced the capacity was raised to 20,000.
The Galaxy will offer free parking and free shuttles from nearby parking lots in order to help raise the attendance.
“There won’t be people on the berm and that kind of thing where we normally would, but it will still be a loud crowd,” Dunivant said.
Midweek games while school is in session carry an attendance cap, which was also in place for the Galaxy’s Sept. 28 match against Morelia, a CONCACAF Champions League game played on a Wednesday when only 7,000 fans were permitted.
It’s a situation that made Galaxy players shake their heads.
“It’s a head-scratcher,” Dunivant said. “This is my fifth year with the Galaxy and I didn’t even know that was a possibility. It’s a new one to me.”