UPPER MONTCLAIR, N.J. – In perhaps their biggest game of the season to date, the New York Red Bulls will be without a player whom head coach Hans Backe called “the best signing” in the league this year. On Friday, Backe ruled out holding midfielder Teemu Tainio from Saturday night’s match in Los Angeles against the Galaxy (11 p.m. ET; ESPN2, ESPN Deportes).
Tainio, who did not train with the first team on Thursday, did not practice at all on Friday after suffering a groin injury in last Saturday’s home win over Sporting Kansas City.
“[Teemu] is not available,” Backe said. “[He] will not travel with us.”
Since trading away Tony Tchani last month in part to obtain Dwayne De Rosario, the Red Bulls are now thin at the holding midfield position. Against a fluid and dynamic Galaxy attack, Tainio's vision and positioning will be missed.
In the place of the Finnish international, Backe has two very different options to slot into the starting XI. It looks as though veteran defensive midfielder Carl Robinsion or attacking midfielder Mehdi Ballouchy will replace Tainio on Saturday night.
“Robbo or Mehdi will start,” Backe said. “They’re very even with both players. I like to sleep on things like that.”
Backe admitted that replacing Tainio will be a tall order. The midfielder has been a revelation in the Red Bulls midfield, leading the league in both interceptions and passing accuracy for those with more than 250 passes.
Ballouchy, who wears the No. 10 for the Red Bulls, admitted it is a steep task that potentially awaits him on Saturday night. Since joining the club last August, he’s played on both wings, as an attacking midfielder and as a withdrawn striker. But he’s never played a holding midfield role in MLS. He’s confident he can acclimate to the new role quickly.
“I haven’t done that,” Ballouchy said. “Obviously it’s not my ideal spot, but I’ve got a good soccer brain.”
Robinson, meanwhile, has long played in a defensive midfield role, but struggled badly in the second half of the Kansas City game last weekend.
Facing Juan: Since joining the league in 2007, Colombian striker Juan Pablo Ángel was the face of the Red Bulls franchise and a fan favorite for his inspired play. In a controversial offseason move, New York did not pick up Ángel’s contract and the player was selected in the Re-Entry Draft by the Galaxy, who signed him to a new deal. Saturday night will be the first time Ángel will wear his Galaxy colors against his old team.
For teenager Juan Agudelo, who was mentored by Ángel last year, it will be a tough moment.
“It’s going to be the first time he plays against us,” Agudelo told MLSsoccer.com. “I realized that he will be wearing the other jersey a few days ago. It’s going to be really weird.”
Though he no longer wears the red and white of the Red Bulls, Ángel - who has scored just once this season for his new team - left a permanent impression at the club.
“He was a very professional player,” Backe told MLSsoccer.com. “Professional in everything he did for the club. I’m talking about daily work here on the practice field. At his age, he was always the first one on the field, the last one to leave.”
Backe teased about Ángel’s potential impact on the match.
“He will probably score the winner for them against us, won’t he?” Backe said, smiling.
Scheming for LA: The Galaxy are the league leaders and the top team in the Western Conference, but Backe isn’t changing the Red Bulls look to adjust for a team that has been among the league’s best the past five years.
“I think for us — and this is a good thing with us — we focus 95 percent on our own playing style,” Backe said. “We don’t have to do some tactical [crap]. I think that’s overrated.”
Now in his second year in MLS, Backe said that the team is to the point that they focus on themselves and not their opponents, outside just routine scouting and tactical awareness.
“I think we’re good enough now to have that philosophy,” Backe said.
Kristian R. Dyer can be followed at twitter.com/KristianRDyer