The "MLS Primetime Thursday" night clash between D.C. United and the Los Angeles Galaxy (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2) originally looked to be a showcase of the oldest true rivalry in the league. The novelty of David Beckham's arrival was expected to have worn off sufficiently for everyone by now, allowing more focus on the game itself.
However, an ankle injury has delayed Beckham's first appearance in league play. The spectacle of the midfielder making his MLS debut threatens to overwhelm the match itself to a side note.
On the other hand, a splash is exactly what the league had in mind when it signed Beckham, so his first MLS appearance could add spice to the long-standing enmity between the teams.
Five story lines to follow
1. Clash of the titans
No two MLS teams have won more league games than the Galaxy and D.C. United. They met in the finals of the first MLS Cup, where D.C. bested L.A. in a come-from-behind victory. In the past five years, though, the Galaxy have won two MLS Cups to United's one.
That history, even with the Galaxy currently struggling near the bottom of the standings, makes matches between the teams a heated affair with pride at stake.
2. Desperate times for L.A.
If the Galaxy are to have any shot for the playoffs, the team has to start winning now.
Oddly enough, they've had success getting victories away at United. It helps that Landon Donovan has been stellar in the confines of RFK Stadium, scoring goals in his last two appearances there. United's raucous fans are especially abusive of Donovan, which only seems to fuel him more. Until their six-goal SuperLiga effort against FC Dallas, the five goals the Donovan-led Galaxy scored against D.C. last year were the most the team had ever managed since in Donovan joined the team.
"Landon likes playing in a good environment," Galaxy coach Frank Yallop said. "It's a wide-open field and there's good atmosphere."
3. Moreno and Jones, once more
Both Jaime Moreno and Cobi Jones are league originals. Though Moreno spent a brief period with New York, the vast majority of his career has been spent in D.C. Not to be outdone, the Galaxy's Jones has never donned another MLS uniform. Jones has announced that this will be his final year. So, the two players who were young tigers in 1996 when they clashed in the first-ever MLS Cup, meet as experienced lions -- who are still important contributors to their respective squads – Thursday night. Whoever has the best day could turn the tide for his team.
4. Counter versus create
The Galaxy have been at their most effective this season when making use of the counterattack. D.C. United, meanwhile, has relied on effective midfield play to build up their attack -- which is usually based on short, quick passes to free up space for forwards to make runs into the box.
It's worked so well for United that the team is comfortable executing their offense even when their most creative and technical player, Christian Gomez, is sidelined, as he was last week due to an injury. Undaunted, D.C. cruised to a 3-0 victory against the conference-leading New England Revolution.
5. The defense rests
Most teams have good days and bad days, but the Galaxy have taken it to extremes this season (with the defense being particularly inconsistent). Under pressure all game long in their last game against Toronto FC, the Galaxy back line bent, but didn't break, shutting out Toronto's young attack. It was a far cry from the previous match, in which the defense yielded five goals.
Against D.C., the Galaxy's defense will switch up slightly.
"We'll put in Kelly Gray or Chris Klein at right back," Yallop said. Both players prefer their midfield duties, but have filled in on defense as needed. It will be another change for the Los Angeles defense to adjust to.
Five players to watch
1. Luciano Emilio -- D.C. United's Brazilian forward is tied for the league lead with 12 goals and his confidence is growing. The Galaxy don't have a single player with even half his tally. Emilio's chemistry with his teammates has really developed, making D.C. United less dependant on Moreno and Gomez.
2. Ben Olsen -- The heart and soul of D.C. United, Olsen does all the little things a true leader does to make a difference for his team. He's willing to foul if need be, argue a foul, take a foul, whatever it takes to help his team get a result. The wily veteran has contributed four goals and three assists this season, but he is at his best providing the intangibles that never show up on the scoresheet.
3. Abel Xavier -- The blond dynamo has been the rock of the Galaxy's defense, organizing the back line and serving up accurate long balls to the attack. Xavier has also served as a leader and mentor for his young central-defensive partner, rookie Ty Harden.
Xavier's savvy on positioning is also impressive, although his speed is no longer what it once was.
4. Joe Cannon -- The Galaxy's goalkeeper has made some impressive saves as of late, and he seems to be hitting a good run of form. Cannon has always been counted on to be a difference-maker. When his game is on, he can turn away quality shots and completely frustrate opponents.
5. David Beckham -- The player so many have wanted to see on the field could get some time in the match, though Yallop didn't want to get hopes up.
"He's a little closer than he was before," Yallop said of Beckham. "We're going to see how he feels. But he could wake up in the morning and be sore and then we'll wait a few more days."
Yallop noted that Beckham was finally participating in some practice situations with his teammates.
"He was able to cross the ball, so that was good," Yallop said.
Beckham, even if he participates, cannot be match fit after such a long layoff. However, all he needs to show his skill and perhaps make a game-changing play is one good dead-ball situation.
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com, soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.