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Mar 8, 2006

Get ready for 90 minutes of hate

Hellish experiences can come in many forms; running a marathon; cycling 100 miles; being forced to watch the Style Network. For American soccer players, the equivalent is traveling to Central America to play in some of the most intimidating stadiums the sport has to offer. And that's exactly the challenge that awaits the Los Angeles Galaxy on Wednesday evening, when they take on Costa Rican champions Saprissa in the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions Cup quarterfinals.

That means the setting for such an occasion will be the Ricardo Saprissa Stadium in San Jose, which at first glance seems an odd locale for one of the region's most daunting environments. With a capacity of 21,000, there are certainly bigger, and one would think louder stadiums in CONCACAF. But former U.S. international Eric Wynalda says Saprissa is, "the most hostile place I've ever played in," and it's a situation where it's not the size of the crowd that matters, but their Jekyll and Hyde behavior.

"The Costa Rican people are great," says Wynalda. "At the airport, they're all smiling. At the hotel, everybody's smiling. At the mall, they're still smiling. Once the game starts, they turn into, for lack of a better word, monsters. It's like George Orwell's 'The Two Minutes Hate,' except that it lasts 90 minutes."

It's an atmosphere that can throw even the most experienced professional off his game.

"It's just a general feeling," adds Wynalda. "You don't even have to do anything to make [the fans] hostile. They write hostile messages in English. They just take it too far."

And afterward?

"It's like [the fans] flick the switch and they go back to being nice," he says.

Granted, Wynalda's experiences came while playing with the U.S. National Team, and the passions that exist during those games are bound to be a notch higher than at club level. But the Galaxy aren't expecting there to be much difference for the CCC, a fact head coach Steve Sampson acknowledged, even while he did his best to put a positive spin on it.

"We're taking the attitude that the hostile environment is one that is exciting," says Sampson. "It's great to be in a country where everyone talks about the game, and in particular they're talking about this game."

That talk is bound to become a roar by Wednesday evening. And such intensity is bound to leave the Galaxy still shaking their heads over the first leg, which finished goalless and constituted a missed opportunity on a variety of levels. Not only were several chances squandered by the likes of Landon Donovan and Herculez Gomez, but it also came against a Saprissa side that was resting several of its starters.

Such charity won't be in evidence come Wednesday, as Saprissa head coach Hernan Medford is expected to start his full side, including Alvaro Saborio, Cristian Bolanos and Walter Centeno. Add in the artificial surface, the intense atmosphere, as well as the fact Saprissa has never lost at home to U.S. opposition, and it makes the odds of a Galaxy victory very long indeed.

But leave it to Sampson to display a "What, me worry?" approach to the proceedings. If Sampson is to be believed, the Galaxy has the Ticos right where it wants them.

"Now is a very good time to be meeting [Saprissa]," says Sampson. "I think they are tired. They've been through a year and a half of nonstop action without much rest. They are not playing so well in their league. But I would expect they'll get up for this match on Wednesday."

If by "not playing so well," Sampson means being tied for first place, with only one loss in 11 league games, then I can think of a lot of managers who would settle for such mediocrity.

But Sampson does have his reasons to be encouraged. The absences of Todd Dunivant and Chris Albright were keenly felt in the first leg. Neither Troy Roberts nor Nathan Sturgis were able to pose the kind of danger on the flanks that is often presented by Dunivant and Albright. And while Dunivant remains sidelined with a left hip flexor injury, Albright has recovered sufficiently from an injured left knee to play at least some part in Wednesday's match.

Although Sampson didn't indicate whether Albright would start the game or not, he did state he expected his fullback to see, "significant minutes." Regardless of his role, Albright's presence, as well as his ability to combine with Cobi Jones, should give the Galaxy a more potent attacking threat on the right hand side.

The two weeks that have ensued since the first leg have also allowed Los Angeles to increase their fitness as well their familiarity with one another. Sampson cited the lack of cohesion between Donovan and Gomez as one reason for the Galaxy's failure to score in the first leg, and the last two weeks have seen that aspect of the Los Angeles attack improve. Set pieces are also bound to be sharper, allowing the likes of Tyrone Marshall a chance to contribute to the offense.

Another positive sign has been the performance of left midfielder Josh Gardner. Entering the match as a second half substitute, Gardner provided a valuable spark during the first leg, getting behind the Saprissa defense several times. All indications are that Gardner will start the return leg, and with Ned Grabavoy remaining back in Los Angeles due to dizzy spells, Gardner will not only be counted on to provide most of the service from the left side, but he'll also be asked to blunt the attacking runs of Saprissa right back Try Bennett.

Whether such advantages will be enough to see the Galaxy prevail remain to be seen. What is certain, however, is that the opening minutes will see Saprissa throw everything they have at L.A. Of special concern will be how young players such as Gardner and Nathan Sturgis, both of whom will line up on the left, cope with the initial onslaught. If the Galaxy can survive the first few minutes, it will do wonders for their confidence.

Another certainty is the extra motivation Sampson is deriving from the match. His ouster as head coach of the Costa Rican National Team is one that still rankles, leaving him to state, "It would give me no greater pleasure than to get a result on Wednesday night."

But any lingering bitterness by Sampson has also been tempered by the warm welcome he has received upon his return.

Sampson adds, "[The fans] have treated me very well from the moment I came into the airport, to the hotel rooms and the restaurants."

That is, at least until the game starts.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com