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David Beckham sets up Galaxy’s 1-0 win over Red Bulls

Some of Major League Soccer’s most decorated players were at Red Bull Arena on Sunday.

David Beckham was the most influential figure in the Galaxy’s 1-0, playoff-opening victory over the New York Red Bulls, creating several opportunities with his long-range passes and assisting on Mike Magee’s 15th-minute goal.

Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan returned from injuries and narrowly missed adding to the top-seeded Galaxy’s advantage in the two-game, total-goals series that concludes Thursday at the Home Depot Center.

Thierry Henry provided the Red Bulls’ attack with some moments of inspiration, though he was prevented by the Galaxy’s well-organized defense from touching the ball in dangerous areas.

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Then there was Rafael Marquez.

Whereas the classy Henry responded to the final whistle by applauding the Red Bulls fans, the ill-tempered Marquez elected to throw the ball at Donovan’s legs.

That prompted forward Adam Cristman to shove Marquez, who retaliated by trying to head-butt and punch Cristman. Players from both teams rushed to the scene of the altercation, of which the end result was red cards for Marquez and Galaxy midfielder Juninho, who took a swing at Marquez.

By igniting an incident that assured he and Juninho would be ineligible for the second leg of the series, Marquez probably did more to help his team than he did during the 90-minute game. If the game Sunday was any indication, the Red Bulls will probably benefit from starting former U.S. youth national team midfielder Dax McCarty in Marquez’s place.

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The longtime captain of Mexico’s national team, Marquez was taken out of his customary center-back role this season because he no longer has the speed to stay with swift-footed strikers. He was moved to the middle of the field, where he would hurt the Red Bulls least because midfielder Teemu Tainio could cover for him defensively.

Marquez on Sunday was mostly limited to taking free kicks. He had a chance to tie the score in the 91st minute, but his low shot was blocked by goalkeeper Josh Saunders.

Because the winner of this series will be determined by total goals, the Galaxy could advance to the one-game MLS semifinals with a draw Thursday. But Juninho was a major reason why the Galaxy gave up a league-low 28 goals and was 12-0-5 at the Home Depot Center. Juninho has performed the dirty work for a midfield that includes the offense-minded Beckham, Donovan and Magee.

The victory Sunday was an example of how reliant the Galaxy is on its defense.

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The reason the Galaxy scores and wins as much as it does is a credit to Beckham, who can still deliver a soccer ball halfway up the field with incredible precision. That ability has enabled the Galaxy to attack without committing players forward and losing its defensive shape.

There were few chances for the Galaxy against the Red Bulls that didn’t come on the end of a Beckham pass.

The first significant one came in the 12th minute, when Beckham sent a 40-yard lob over the Red Bulls’ back line to hit Magee. The sequence produced a loose ball that Keane crashed into the right goal post. The ensuing rebound was headed from point-blank range over the crossbar by Magee.

Magee redeemed himself three minutes later, when he beat an off-side trap on a set-piece play to free himself on the left side of the penalty box. Beckham delivered him the ball, which he volleyed on one bounce and slammed inside of the far post.

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Keane, who hadn’t played in a month because of an abdominal strain, dribbled around goalkeeper Frank Rost in the 45th minute but was caught from behind. Donovan, back from a quadriceps strain, also found himself alone with Rost in the 55th minute when center-back Tim Ream slipped in pursuit of a pass by Galaxy left back Todd Dunivant. Donovan’s shot was pushed wide by Rost.

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

Hernandez reported from Los Angeles.


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