Union heading West for test vs. LA Galaxy

Landon Donovan will return to the Galaxy tomorrow night.
Landon Donovan will return to the Galaxy tomorrow night.
Posted: April 01, 2011

IT'S A statement game.

The fans know it; the coaches and players have said it.

Tomorrow night, at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., the Union will try to improve to 3-0 when it meets the star-studded Los Angeles Galaxy. A strong performance will further reinforce the notion that all the offseason moves have made this franchise for real.

Union capo Peter Nowak, who on Wednesday was made boss of all bosses when he donned the lengthy title of executive vice president of soccer operations, told the press matter of factly that "this is a big game for us."

It's one that will speak volumes given the Galaxy's firepower. Consider:

Landon Donovan will return from international duties this week. At 35, midfielder David Beckham hasn't lost much of the prowess that's made him an international soccer icon. Even those who can't name three MLS teams, even after 16 years of league existence, know Beckham plays for one. Tack on former Red Bulls designated player Juan Pablo Angel and 22-year-old Brazilian Juninho, who will be the most dangerous player on the pitch for the Galaxy.

Despite being used as a holding midfielder, it's Juninho's freedom to roam that has made him a menace. He leads the team with two goals in three matches, but failed to score for the first time in five consecutive games dating to the 2010 regular season after going scoreless in last Saturday's 4-1 loss to Real Salt Lake.

"He's a game-changer, he's going to be someone that we really keep a close eye on because tactically he's one of the better players in the league," said defender Jordan Harvey. "All of [their players] are going to bring the pressure and we have to be ready for it. We know this match will be tough, but we are a much different team than the one that played them last year, much more focused."

Starting LA goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts is listed as questionable because of a hamstring strain and, according to sources, he's closer to doubtful, so that plays to the Union's advantage. Ricketts (0.90 goals-against average in 2010) earned his last clean sheet in a 1-0 Galaxy win over the Union last October.

Another edge for the Union is that the Galaxy's back line hasn't been the formidable presence that aided in LA garnering its third Supporters Shield for the MLS' best record last season. The quintet of goalkeeper Josh Saunders and defenders A.J. DeLaGarza, Todd Dunivant, Sean Franklin (replacing the injured Gregg Berhalter) and Leonardo has allowed five goals in three matches for a 1.67 goals against average.

"I think it's going to be a very different type of game," said defender Danny Califf. "They are a group that has a lot of experience in general and any time they take a thumping like they did in Salt Lake they are going to be looking to bounce back. I anticipate that they are going to come out with a ton of energy and high pressure us and put us on the back foot early, especially in front of their home crowd; they are going to be looking to make a statement."

LINES OF COMMUNICATION

 It's only been two games, but defensively, the Union is the class of MLS. Don't focus on the back-to-back shutouts, but the fact that just six shots on goal have occurred, none of which made Faryd Mondragon's life very difficult.

Union central defender Carlos Valdes spoke via translator on the success of the last line of defense:

"It started in preseason,'' he said. "We are all working together to create a team that is improving from the back to the forward line. We don't really spend that much time outside of practice, but during practice and in games we focus on our communication and making sure that we talk to each other, so no one is out of place. Communication is very important; it can mean the difference between winning and losing in soccer."

One concern is the immense workload of outside defenders Jordan Harvey and Sheanon Williams. Nowak's pesky, 4-3-3 formation finds both players on the attack a lot more than most defenders, spreading the width of the pitch, distributing down the flanks and even putting in the occasional cross into the 18-yard-box, before hurriedly having to check back to the defensive third. At first glance, it would appear that a quick counter would strain the defense, but as Harvey claims, it's a problem that already has a solution.

"We are trying to push forward on the outside and trying to spread the field, but at the same time we are being smart knowing that if it looks dangerous we track back, and also we have two smart guys in defensive-minded midfielders [Stefani Miglioranzi] and [Brian] Carroll who understand that if we push forward, they hold. There is a much greater awareness and understanding in the back this year, and so far it's been to our advantage."

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

 The Union will be seeking its third straight win to stay atop the East while the Galaxy will be seeking its third straight win to continue its dominance of the Union.

KEEP AN EYE ON . . .

* A possible Brian Perk sighting.

The Union's final pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft will be the backup goalkeeper with Donovan Ricketts still on the mend. Perk, one of three UCLA grads taken in that draft by the Union, was waived last July.

* Comcast's inaugural game coverage.

The cable network does a solid job with the Phillies, Sixers and Flyers, but it will be interesting to see how it handles the Union, specifically its graphics and lead-in.

Tomorrow's game is on the Comcast Network, which will split the load this season with Comcast SportsNet.

SHOTS ON GOAL

UPCOMING GAME

Union (2-0-0, six points) at Los Angeles (1-1-1, four points)

When: Saturday, 10:30 p.m.

Where: Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif.

TV: The Comcast Network

On the web: Streaming video on MLSSoccer.com

For kicks: This game should bring back memories for newly minted Union forward Carlos Ruiz, who terrorized defenses while a member of the Galaxy for four seasons. It also will be homecoming for defender Danny Califf and Stefani Miglioranzi, who both had stints in LA . . . David Beckham will relinquish the captain's armband to Galaxy midfielder Landon Donovan. Beckham, 35, named captain last week while Donovan was on international duty with the U.S. national team, is in the last year of a 5-year, $32.5 million contract and, according to multiple reports, is not slated to return to Major League Soccer next season . . . The Union will look to control Brazilian midfielder Juninho, who has absorbed the role of playmaker and scorer. Last year, that role went to forward Edson Buddle (now with Ingolstadt 04 of the German second division) but this year Juninho has taken over, with two goals early on.

INJURY REPORT

Questionable for the Union: Justin Mapp, MF (left hamstring strain). Probable: Carlos Valdes, DF (right ankle sprain); Danny Califf, DF (left knee meniscus); Sebastien Le Toux (right ankle)

Out for the Galaxy: Gregg Berhalter, DF (left knee MCL sprain); Adam Cristman, FW (left knee surgery). Questionable: Donovan Ricketts, GK (right hamstring strain). Probable: Omar Gonzalez, DF (right shoulder sprain)

DID YOU KNOW?

Union goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon was the starting goalkeeper for Colombia during the 1998 World Cup in France. Colombia was paired with England in group play in what was the first international start for David Beckham. One memory Mondragon probably won't want to revisit is Beckham scoring his first-ever international goal on the stalwart 'keeper, using one of his trademark bending free kicks in the 29th minute of a 2-0 England win.

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