For the first time in MLS history, the league's two richest teams, the ones with the most famous players and who play in the biggest media markets will finally face off in a playoff game. When the New York Red Bulls host the Los Angeles Galaxy on Sunday, it will only be a conference semifinal game, but it will be a fulfillment of a 16-year-old dream.
It is being called the "1 Percenter Derby," and for good reason. The combined payroll of the Red Bulls and Galaxy (roughly $28 million) is essentially the equivalent of the next eight biggest spending MLS teams combined. The five highest paid players in the league all play for one of these two teams. Their combined salaries are more than double that of the league's other 18 Designated Players combined and the rough equivalent of the collective salary of the league's next 57 highest paid players.
In other words, the Red Bulls and Galaxy are simply unlike the other 16 teams in parity driven MLS. A league which was built on principals that all teams should have an equal chance at the resources, has bent to the wills of these ownerships, all with the hope that this very matchup would be the result.
Well, maybe not exactly this, but in a way having the Galaxy and Red Bulls meet this early in the playoffs is even better for MLS. Instead of one winner-take-all championship game, we'll get to see two games between the would-be titans of North American soccer.
And if you squint hard enough, it really does seem like a titanic matchup. Thierry Henry, Joel Lindpere and Dane Richards have all had quality seasons for the Red Bulls. Tim Ream, Jan Gunnar Solli and Rafael Marquez are, theoretically at least, some of the best passing defensive players in the league. Juan Agudelo, when Hans Backe deems him worthy of playing time, can still be as exciting a player to watch as the league has. Luke Rodgers, when he's healthy, has become a legitimate weapon. Frank Rost is a highly decorated international goalkeeper.
Look at this team with open eyes, though, and you can see why they were the 10th and final team to qualify for the playoffs. The Red Bulls offense is prone to disappearing. The defense leaks goals at an alarming rate. Agudelo is barely used, mainly because he's inconsistent. Rodgers is battling a knee injury, and missed about a third of the Red Bulls' games for a variety of reasons.
When it's all going well for the Red Bulls, they are as good as any team in the league. But it has so rarely gone well. Their win over FC Dallas in the wild card round doesn't change any of that. As much as they would have us believe otherwise, it's hard to believe that the locker room tumult has disappeared. Coach Hans Backe has blamed international call-ups, injuries and a heavy travel schedule on this team's struggles, but other teams have had it just as bad or worse in every area and have somehow managed to perform at consistently higher levels.
The Galaxy, on the other hand, have just as much star power and have dealt with just as many distraction, but Bruce Arena has managed to keep his team playing like a well-oiled machine. David Beckham has finally shown just how good he can be. Landon Donovan is having another perfectly solid season. Robbie Keane has fit into the team almost effortlessly. The defense has been almost impossible to score upon.
It has all added up to a regular-season that ranks among the best in league history. Their 67 points were the most of the post-shootout era. They became just the third team to go undefeated at home (12-0-5). Their 17 shutouts were more than any other team in MLS history.
The Galaxy don't always look pretty doing it, but they are brutally effective. Beckham has made them deadly on set-pieces. Donovan is the league's most efficient scorer. Omar Gonzalez and Todd Dunivant are the two leading contenders for Defender of the Year. Juninho has quietly become one of the best central midfielders in the league.
The big question for them is how many of those players will be available against the Red Bulls. Beckham, Donovan, Keane and starting center back Gregg Berhalter are all listed on the injury report. Of those players, Beckham and Donovan seem likely to be able to play, while Keane and Berhalter are more questionable.
Whether these two teams have their full complement of players, this should still be an interesting matchup. The Red Bulls actually won their season series (4 points to 1), but their win came late in the season when the Galaxy had nothing left to really play for. Clearly, that won't be the case this time.