la galaxy's landon donovan strokes home a penalty vs. the new york red bulls
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NY's set-piece defending struggles in typical fashion vs. LA

The New York Red Bulls have struggled to defend set-pieces all year. The second leg of the Western Conference Semifinals on Thursday second leg proved no different.

After knotting the aggregate score at 1-0 on a 4th-minute strike from Luke Rodgers, LA rallied to put New York back in their place on a 42nd-minute Mike Magee header off of David Beckham’s corner. Landon Donovan eventually iced the series in the 75th minute when he lashed a penalty past Frank Frost to put LA ahead 3-1 on aggregate.

But the Magee goal — the second time the Red Bulls conceded on a corner to the Galaxy this season, after Donovan thumped home a header off Beckham corner kick earlier this year — was the killer.

“I think when Magee scored the first one, our guys just missed to mark him,” head coach Hans Backe said in the postgame press conference. “He came from the rebound area, perhaps not that easy to pick up. Perhaps our guy in the zone positioning should have attacked the ball but it’s been too many goals from set plays.”

New York’s dead-ball woes can be traced back to a stretch in May, when the Red Bulls conceded either a set piece or penalty kick goal in six straight matches. Communication – or lack thereof – consistently disrupted the team’s zonal marking system, and opponents seemed to make New York pay for every error.

The Red Bulls’ defense allowed 44 goals in 2011, tied for the most conceded by any playoff team and a sharp increase from their 29 against in 2010. Improved midfield play in the final weeks of the season did wonders to stop the bleeding as New York recorded three straight shutouts at home. An early injury to midfielder Teemu Tainio, however, dealt a blow to the Red Bulls’ ability to win balls and control the tempo of the game.

“It’s frustrating – people probably give us a lot of credit for coming out and playing the way we did in the first 20 minutes,” midfielder Dax McCarty said after the match. “I don’t think they sniffed the ball. Then, unfortunately, Teemu got injured, we lost all our rhythm. LA was pushing, pushing and then you get to the 39th, 40th minute you say, ‘OK, we’ll take 1-0 into the half.’ It’s been our Achilles' heel all season.”

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