Not so long ago, the can't-miss match in Major League Soccer was the Los Angeles Galaxy versus their local rivals, Chivas USA. The only MLS teams to share a city, the clashes were intriguing -- the storied Galaxy squad versus the striped upstarts who claimed to represent a different brand of soccer.
The air went out of the rivalry somewhat when the Galaxy won, and then kept doing that, again and again. Chivas USA has been victorious exactly once (1-8-2), when Galaxy stars Landon Donovan and Chris Albright were off to the World Cup in 2006.
Now, however, the game is less about the two squads themselves and more about whether David Beckham can lead the Galaxy on a near-impossible mission to make the MLS playoffs.
Five story lines to follow
1. Which members of the traveling band will play?
Chivas USA defender Jonathan Bornstein, along with Galaxy players Landon Donovan and David Beckham, all took part in international friendlies in Europe on Wednesday, than hopped planes to return in time for their Thursday matchup.
With his squad holding a relatively comfortable spot in the standings, Preki, Chivas USA's coach, has the luxury of resting Bornstein for the match. That's exactly what he was inclined to do.
"I don't think he's going to play, no," said Preki. "I don't feel like risking Jonathan Bornstein's health for the rest of the season, because of one game."
U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley, who coached Chivas USA to their one win last season, pulled Donovan and Bornstein out of the friendly loss versus Sweden at the exact same time, theoretically leaving both with an equal amount in the tank to expend on their MLS contest. Beckham, meanwhile, went the distance for England versus Germany.
With his years of experience in international competition with Mexico, Chivas USA defender Claudio Suarez was skeptical that any of the trio would be able to contribute anywhere near their normal capacity.
"International matches are very intense," said Suarez. "I don't think the Galaxy players are going to be in great shape."
Yet unlike Preki, Galaxy coach Frank Yallop has not ruled out using Donovan or Beckham in the match.
2. The last stand
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|L.A. vs. Chivas USA, |
Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif.
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Realistically, the sand in the Galaxy's playoff clock has nearly run out. The fact that Yallop is even considering Beckham and Donovan as contributors is a telling sign of how desperate the situation is.
Yet even when the Galaxy played poorly and missed the playoffs for the first time in their entire history last season, they managed to wrest the series title from Chivas USA.
"There have been times in the past where we have been playing well and we're above them in the table and we go in against them and think the game should go in our favor and for whatever reason, it doesn't necessarily go that way," said Chivas USA midfielder Jesse Marsch.
The team has adopted a new strategy to deal with the Galaxy's edge in their history, and it involved downplaying the whole event.
"We're trying to take the mentality of 'it's another game,' so we don't stress out and play tight and don't perform as well as we should," Marsch said.
"They've been dominating us and that's the way it is," said Preki. "We can't change that right now. The only thing we can change is our mentality going into these games."
3. The best defense is a good offense
Two of the most productive forwards in the league are the Chivas USA tandem of Maykel Galindo and Ante Razov. The duo has scored 14 goals this season, yet Preki was looking for them to do even better.
Meanwhile, the Galaxy suffered another setback on their back line, losing right back Ante Jazic to a badly sprained ankle in their last league game.
That leaves a very inexperienced defending corps in front of Joe Cannon to contend with Razov and Galindo.
4. Patience versus pluck
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It remains to be seen whether Beckham or Donovan, or both, will attempt the foolhardy combination of two games in two days combined with intercontinental travel.
Yet as rash as the move might be, there is something heroic and inspiring about it as well. Seeing their teammates' dedication to the squad might lift the other Galaxy players to rally around their effort.
Chivas USA players were preparing for that possibility.
"We're planning as if they're going to play," said Suarez. "We're been playing well lately, and we have better results than they do, but in these games, we have to forget about the standings and focus on having the right mentality."
5. History repeating
"We don't lose to Chivas USA," said Galaxy midfielder Pete Vagenas.
The season thus far has borne that out. The Galaxy have beaten Chivas USA once and tied the other meeting. The Galaxy have a chance to clinch the season series if they win again.
Five players to watch
1. Paulo Nagamura
Nagamura lined up against Chivas USA as a Galaxy player in 2005, his first year with MLS. Not only did the Galaxy win every game between the two squads, but they also won the MLS championship.
Now that Nagamura is a Chivas USA player, the quiet Brazilian has been a key contributor.
"He brings it. He's alert, he tackles hard, he's a good defender and he's smart. He's a good passer. There's really very few flaws in his game," said Marsch.
2. Abel Xavier
The Galaxy cannot afford to have the experienced defender missing games (as he did versus New York, apparently partly because of the turf surface), but neither can they afford to push his injured knee too much.
Yet the defense, which has been incredibly shaky without him, is noticeably improved when he is involved, directing others on where to go and who to cover.
3. Mike Randolph
The rookie has been an unexpected recent bright spot for the Galaxy. His athletic defense and speed on the attack have created new opportunities for a squad missing many offensive options. Yet it is an entirely different matter to perform when the pressure is on because of raised expectations. Randolph will have to prove that he has the goods in front of demanding home fans who hate a loss to Chivas USA more than almost anything else.
4. Ramon Nunez
Nunez, newly-acquired from FC Dallas, has the talent to turn a match on its head and seems determined to make the most of his chance.
"Nunez is certainly a gifted guy on the ball. He's got the ability to make big plays. I think that his maturing process is going to be the biggest part for him moving forward," said Marsch.
5. Cobi Jones
Like Abel Xavier, Jones avoids the turf fields of MLS, especially when nursing an injury, so he has not featured in the lineup lately.
However, the veteran Galaxy midfielder does not want to exit his final season early. Already this year, he has contributed key goals, including versus Chivas USA. A vintage performance from Jones could spark the Galaxy as much as any token appearance by Donovan or Beckham.
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.