CARSON, Calif. – The foundation of an East Coast-West Coast rivalry in MLS was laid down in April 13, 1996, when the LA Galaxy hosted the New York/New Jersey MetroStars.
Since then, only one side managed to realize the expectations thrust upon them. The Galaxy won two MLS Cups and appeared in five of the first 10 league title games while the MetroStars quickly sank into the abyss of mediocrity.
Now, things are different. The MetroStars morphed into the New York Red Bulls as they reinvigorated their on-field performance and became the potential powerhouse New Yorkers expected from the start.
“Now that New York is a prominent team in our league and they’re successful,” Galaxy captain Landon Donovan said, “it makes the game fun and special. It should be a really good night on Saturday. That both Los Angeles and New York franchises boast high-profile talent and are title-contending clubs is a dream realized."
The Galaxy will host the Red Bulls on Saturday (11 pm ET, ESPN 2, ESPN Deportes) in what prognosticators foresee as a matchup of title contenders. LA started the season in possession of the Supporters’ Shield and set a higher target of reaching MLS Cup 2011. To get there, the Galaxy will need to rely on their arsenal of talent with Donovan, Juan Pablo Ángel and David Beckham leading the charge.
Meanwhile, New York set a goal to claim a place among the MLS elite by taking the Supporters' Shield from the Galaxy. Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe assembled the squad to do so, with Thierry Henry, Rafa Márquez and Dwayne De Rosario leading the talent-rich Red Bulls to the Home Depot Center for the first meeting of the two squads in 2011.
Though a first meeting of title contenders will always attract extra attention, the spotlight will undoubtedly shine brighter when the clubs involved come from sporting capitals like New York and Los Angeles.
“It’s always like this, especially when you are going to play the two franchises who have invested the heaviest in this country,” Ángel said. “They are the two biggest media markets in this country. There is going to be attention throughout the world in this game.”
Donovan also recognized the gravitas of such a matchup with both teams hitting their stride concurrently.
“For most sports leagues, it’s a dream to have two big cities like this succeeding, playing well and matching up together,” Donovan said. “In the NBA, if the Knicks and Lakers could play, everybody would be very happy if they played in the Finals. In other leagues, the same holds true.”
Perhaps the only other season when a Galaxy-Red Bulls matchup legitimately provided a potential MLS Cup preview was in 2010, when the Galaxy had the league’s best record while New York finished with the third-most points.
With the unpredictability of the MLS Cup Playoffs and the presence of other strong clubs such as Real Salt Lake, a postseason rematch between the City of Angels and the City that Never Sleeps is not a given and likely makes the stakes even higher for both sides in 2011.
“The way the league is set up, you only play each team twice and you only get to play them at home once and away once,” Donovan said. “We know that this is our one chance to beat them at home and we want to make the most of it.”