Game time: Saturday, 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: Live Well HD Network (ABC 6.2, Comcast 245 (HD), Comcast 246 (SD), Verizon Fios 466 (HD), Verizon 465 (SD))
Philadelphia Union, meet the best team in the league. The Los Angeles Galaxy have played nearly flawless soccer this season. They come in with the league’s best record, best player, top scorer, best coach and possibly the best back line. The dysfunctional team of a year ago is gone, replaced by the class of the league, and they’re doing it without David Beckham, which has taken the circus quality out of it all. Instead, they just play top class soccer, the best that Major League Soccer has to offer. They even get a little luck, remaining undefeated thanks to Kansas City’s Kei Kamara and the worst miss of the year.
As for the Union, they enter the game without Sebastien Le Toux, who has scored five of their six goals this year. They produced their worst performance of the season Tuesday against the New York Red Bulls, admittedly with only half their starters beginning the game. It was so bad that manager Peter Nowak made them run sprints after the game. Maybe that just humiliated them, or maybe it’s a wake-up call. The Union are a talented team that can win games in this league, and this is only their fifth regular season game ever. Sooner or later, this team is going to come around and be one of the league’s better squads. Will that start tonight?
Goalkeeper: Chris Seitz
Defenders: Jordan Harvey, Michael Orozco, Danny Califf, Cristian Arrieta
Midfielders: Stefani Miglioranzi, Fred, Roger Torres, Andrew Jacobson
Forwards: Alejandro Moreno, Nick Zimmerman
Goalkeeper: Donovan Ricketts
Defenders: A.J. DeLaGarza, Gregg Berhalter, Omar Gonzalez, Todd Dunivant
Midfielders: Landon Donovan, Michael Stephens, Chris Birchall, Juninho
Forwards: Edson Buddle, Mike Magee
Injuries and suspensions
Philadelphia: FW Sebastien Le Toux (knee sprain) is out. MF Kyle Nakazawa (illness) is questionable.
Los Angeles: DF Sean Franklin (left ankle sprain), MF Dema Kovalenko (right hamstring sprain), DF Leonardo (right quad strain), MF Eddie Lewis (left food contusion), and MF Clint Mathis (left knee surgery) are questionable.
Philadelphia defense vs. Los Angeles forwards
Galaxy forward Edson Buddle is playing the best soccer of his career, scoring a Major League Soccer record seven goals in his first four games and leading the league in goals. Mike Magee may not be a true striker, but he scores clutch goals and doesn’t make many mistakes. This is a good forward tandem, and Alan Gordon is a decent backup. Add Donovan’s service and attack from the wing, and you have trouble.
The Union’s back five have had trouble down the middle. Goalkeeper Chris Seitz may be settling down, and it’s hard to blame him for the two goals in Tuesday’s U.S. Open Cup loss to the New York Red Bulls. But the center backs continue to make key mistakes, despite their pedigree. If Michael Orozco, Danny Califf and their backups all start playing even close to as well as people think they can, then this is a great back line. But they’re not, and it’s not. Fullbacks Cristian Arrieta and Jordan Harvey have been very good, the experiment with Shea Salinas at fullback has gotten him more time, but this is still the Los Angeles Galaxy. Sorry, guys.
Edge: Los Angeles
Philadelphia midfield vs. Los Angeles midfield
The Galaxy have Landon Donovan, the best American player in the world. Need I say more? Ok, we’ll say a little more. Rookie Michael Stephens and young Brazilian Juninho have played at a level that turns what, outside of Donovan, might have been a weakness this year into a strength. When the no-name new guys can do that, it’s a good sign that you might just have the best team in the league.
As for the Union, they have a solid starting midfield, but without a true winger among the first four, their width and danger on the sidelines has been lacking. Andrew Jacboson and Stefani Miglioranzi have been excellent as central holding midfielders. The two attacking wingers have been Fred and Roger Torres, neither of whom is a true winger, but each of whom has looked dangerous at times. For the first few games, Torres looked like a budding superstar. The Red Bulls made him like the 18-year-old kid he is during their two matches. Either the Red Bulls know something that no one else does, or Torres is human after all. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Salinas get a start at midfield, but maybe I like his attacking style more than Peter Nowak does.
Edge: Los Angeles
Philadelphia forwards vs. Los Angeles defense
The Union will be without Sebastien Le Toux, who has scored five of the team’s six goals in all matches this season. Who will score in his absence? Alejandro Moreno has played very well as a target man. He has three assists, and his passing has been beautiful as he’s developed an instinctive relationship with Le Toux. If he has no one to pass to, however, the passing won’t mean much. Nick Zimmerman or Danny Mwanga will likely replace Le Toux, and neither has shown he’s ready for prime time yet. I guess tonight’s the night, huh?
On the other side, the Galaxy have one of the league’s best defenses. Last year’s rookie of the year, center back Omar Gonzalez, anchors the back line with veteran Gregg Berhalter, who just returned from a knee injury. Together, they form one of the league’s best center back tandems, and they don’t make the killer mistakes the Union’s pair have made in the early part of the season. On the flanks, Todd Dunivant, A.J. DeLaGarza and Sean Franklin split time, and all three are quality MLS starters. Goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts is one of the league’s best at his position
Edge: Los Angeles
Individual match-up to watch
Landon Donovan vs. anyone
This might be the only time we ever get to see Donovan play the Union. By the time the Galaxy visit PPL Park on Oct. 7, Donovan could be gone to England, as many expect him to make a permanent move abroad during the summer transfer window. Donovan is a different player than he was last year. He hasn’t scored a single goal, but he has four assists and is helping lead an attack that is helping Buddle set league scoring records. Take the time to appreciate seeing him play the Union, because he is the best this country has to offer.
What to expect
The Galaxy will play good soccer at their home stadium, quite simply. Without Le Toux, the Union could struggle to find the net. Donovan may be a defensive mismatch for the Union midfielders, but fortunately Arrieta and Harvey can fill the gaps. The question is how the Union will rebound. They played so poorly Tuesday night that Nowak made them run sprints after the game. That’s either bush league by Nowak, or the guys had it coming. So it will be a wake-up call, or will guys just be tired? Los Angeles is a team you can’t screw around with. The killer errors the Union have made so far will kneecap the Union if repeated.
Los Angeles wins 2-0. The Galaxy are the best team in the league. The Union are talented, but talent isn’t enough when you play a team this good. (Yes, we’re trying the dreaded reverse jinx here in hopes of turning the soccer gods against the Galaxy. Will it work?)