HARRISON, N.J. — There are opponents who are geographically closer and have more historical ties to New York — enemies that could be termed as true rivals to the Red Bulls. But a New York Red Bulls-LA Galaxy matchup has a cachet all its own.
And given that both teams sit atop their respective conferences, it doesn’t get much bigger than Saturday night's tilt at the Home Depot Center (11 pm ET; ESPN2, ESPN Deportes).
“It is more of a special game,” Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe said. “They’re the best team in the league. This could be a cracker.”
The match has the feel of an early-season slugfest as it pits last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners (LA) against the Eastern Conference regular-season champs.
The Galaxy, whom Backe called "an attacking team," are among the league leaders in goals scored this season (11) and boast a fluid, dynamic offense. The Red Bulls, who have eight goals in their current three-game winning streak, haven’t been lacking for offensive dynamism, either.
A big part of the reason for the hype around the match — not to mention both teams’ early success this season — is due to the big names on the rosters. It's likely there will be five Designated Players on the field on Saturday: LA's Juan Pablo Ángel, David Beckham and Landon Donovan; and New York's Rafa Márquez and Thierry Henry. This match will mark the first time that Henry and Beckham meet in MLS play.
Henry remembers the last time he played against Beckham: in the first knockout round of the 2005-06 UEFA Champions League when his Arsenal downed David Beckham's Real Madrid (Henry even scored the series-clinching goal at Real Madrid's Bernabéu Stadium on Feb. 21, 2006.)
But Henry, like his teammates, is focusing more on the match than on the star power surrounding the game.
“It isn’t a derby,” Henry said. “We have LA this weekend and the most important thing is the three points.”
The Red Bulls do come into the match firing on all cylinders, while the Galaxy dropped a tough result late at FC Dallas last weekend. New York have won three in a row to claim sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference and the offense, led by Henry’s three goals and three assists over that stretch, has been dominant for the most part.
Like Henry, Backe is less focused on what the Galaxy brings to the table and more concerned about what the Red Bulls are doing.
“I said it last year, we focus on our playing style,” Backe said. “I think the team we have right now is a difficult team to beat.”
Kristian R. Dyer can be followed at twitter.com/KristianRDyer