David Beckham is no longer there to bend it for the L.A. Galaxy, but there are plenty of stars who might offer the Cristiano Ronaldo-led Real Madrid a challenge when the two teams collide at University of Phoenix Stadium on Thursday, August 1. The match is sure to be entertaining as the Spanish La Liga team utilizes a super quick-paced brand of fútbol that dwarfs anything a Major League Soccer team can muster up -- even one with the U.S.'s biggest star, Landon Donovan, back from his self-imposed time away from the game.
"Maybe the L.A. Galaxy players will have a little more hunger than the players on Real Madrid," says David Robertson, head coach of the Phoenix FC Wolves, the local professional football club. "With a game like this, there's a feeling -- I'm not saying Real Madrid should just show up -- but if Real Madrid beats the L.A. Galaxy nobody cares because it's expected. An L.A. Galaxy win would be huge. It's going to be a great occasion, and the L.A. Galaxy players will certainly be up for trying to put one over on the best team in world soccer."
Whether the MLS team wins or loses, it's the 28-year-old Ronaldo, arguably the world's best player, luring fans to University of Phoenix stadium. Ronaldo scored 55 goals in 56 matches last year, and all eyes -- of fans and the Galaxy defense -- will be on the young Portuguese forward.
"He's such a talent you could maybe get someone to mark him, but if you give too much attention to Ronaldo there are other players who can kill you," Robertson says. "Real Madrid is a hard team to defend against, so I think [L.A.] needs to be offensive and open, but keep in the back of their mind Real Madrid have five or six players who can win the game on their own."
Robertson credits Real Madrid's dominance to a fast, physical style of play that utilizes movement away from the ball as well as with it. Blink for a second and Real Madrid's players are gone -- and that can lead to trouble for any opponent.
"The Spanish league is very fast, but it's not so much the passing, but the movement of these players off the ball. The sheer movement, the sheer ability . . . most teams have one or two special players, but a team like Real Madrid is complete," he says. "It's just amazing. It's a joy to watch and those who go to the game will be blown away by the movement and speed of the players."
The MLS style of play is much slower with longer passes and more build-up stretching into those perfect shots. Can the Galaxy hang with Real Madrid? Robertson thinks so, but ultimately believes Real Madrid will come out on top.
"The Galaxy have a little bit of an advantage being in the middle of their season [Real Madrid's season starts in mid-August]. ... They will have a good go at them, get some opportunities to score, but the class of Real Madrid is just magic," he says. "They can up the tempo or slow the tempo. A team can think they're doing well against them, but [Real Madrid] lulls them into a false sense of security. Then they strike."
While the L.A. Galaxy boasts a handful of former European stars, there's plenty of homegrown talent as well, including midfielder Pablo Mastroeni, a Phoenix native who attended Thunderbird High School. The Galaxy's newest player (he arrived via trade from the Colorado Rapids in June), Mastroeni is a 14-year MLS veteran, six-time all-star, and 2010 MLS champion. He has played in more than 60 matches for the U.S. National team, including the 2002 and 2006 World Cup campaigns. He's accustomed to facing top-tier talent, but has nonetheless been studying up on Real Madrid. He took some time out of his training schedule to talk by phone with Jackalope Ranch about the Thursday, August 1, friendly at University of Phoenix Stadium.
This type of match is called a friendly, but how friendly is it? It's more like a friendly, as there is nothing on the line. But there will be a lot going on. As they are getting ready to start their season, young players are being judged, while older players are getting in form. For us, it's a great way to gauge where we are in regard to playing against one of the best clubs in the world. We're not bitter rivals, but as far as competition, everyone on their side has something to prove, and on our side everyone has an opportunity to gauge where they are and to see what it would be like to play against this caliber of opponent. There's something on the line for everyone here.
Can an MLS team really compete with a top La Liga team? I think so. Every team poses different challenges. They're coming into a season. Our team is halfway through the season, so we're at [a different level] as far as fitness. It will be a well-contested match. You need a little bit of luck in every match you play, so it's going to be a really good game. It will be close.
What's the strength L.A. Galaxy brings to the game going against the fast, pressuring style Real Madrid utilizes? Organization would be imperative against a team like Real Madrid. If you go in and try to play their free-flowing, physical type of soccer -- that's their game and what they're known for -- you can find yourself in a little bit of trouble. As of late, [the Galaxy] have been playing really well and finding good opportunities to go forward and maintain possession of the attacking third [of the field]. More importantly, we're getting shots and working hard, so for us organization on both sides of the ball would be imperative.
Do you think it's possible to shut down, or maybe just slow down, Real Madrid? The first 15 to 20 minutes are really important in any soccer game, but maybe more so here. There's a lot of posturing going on and if they sense fear or that [a team is] not ready to take them on I think you're in for a long match. It's critical for our team to impose ourselves the best we can with our style of play and let them know we're there to compete. So the first 15 to 20 minutes are critical to let them know it will be a well-fought match.
Anything special that can be done to stop Cristiano Ronaldo, who may be the best player in the world and last year scored 55 goals in 56 matches? Is there a strategy in place for him? There's a lot of European clubs asking the same question. I don't have an answer for that; that's why he's one of the best players in the world. You've got to try and minimize and double up when you can. I think you'd be alright with the rest of the guys [on Real Madrid] being able to do more if you limit the amount of looks or touches he has. But the great players will always find a way to get shots on goal; find a way to carve up defenses. It may not be scoring goals, it may be setting them up for assists or penetrating defenses to make the rest of the guys on the squad look good.
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It will be a focal point of any team's defense to keep an eye on Cristiano. But it can't to the point of being the only focus because they have other players that are very technical and talented and can carve you up as well. He likes to float around, find little spots and the onus is on keeping on eye on him and trying to slow him down until help comes or make the defensive play on your own. Definitely for this game he'll be the focal point of the defense.
So, to answer your question, I don't know there's a particular way to stop him. If you stop him from shooting, he'll pass, and if you stop him from passing he'll find a way to get his shot off. Great players always find a way.
Play psychic for me. What's the final score? Wow! (Long pause) That's tough for me to say. If I knew that I'd probably quit what I was doing and become a sports bettor. (Laughs) Seriously, it will be a great opportunity to play against a great team and I think the stadium will be filled with a lot of soccer-knowledgeable fans. All I know is that there will be two teams playing that will hopefully put on a show of good soccer. It will be a great experience for the Valley.