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Aug 28, 2007

Pachuca the heavy favorites in the SuperLiga final

CARSON, Calif. -- For a tournament about to conclude its first incarnation, the SuperLiga has plenty of reasons to hold its head high. The nascent competition has featured competitive matches, with the requisite amount of drama and nastiness, and for the most part, the games have been well-attended.

The tournament is still far from perfect of course. The Champions League it isn't, and questions abound about how seriously some of the Mexican entrants -- not to mention their fans -- took the SuperLiga. So it seems fitting that all of these traits define Wednesday's final between Pachuca and the Los Angeles Galaxy: imperfect, but still filled with plenty of reasons to watch.

That Pachuca finds itself in the final isn't a surprise. Los Tuzos will be looking to add to the impressive haul of trophies the team has accumulated in the last year, having already nabbed the Copa Sudamericana and the CONCACAF Champions Cup, as well as Mexico's Clausura last May. And Los Tuzos have done it by playing an attacking style that is as easy on the eyes as it is effective.

But if Pachuca is the Ferrari of the competition, the Galaxy bear a closer resemblance to a reject from a demolition derby. At present, L.A. has lost five league matches in a row, and there are nearly as many players sidelined by injury as there are on the Galaxy lineup sheet. In the 3-0 defeat at Colorado last weekend, Galaxy head coach Frank Yallop had only five substitutes at his disposal, two short of the maximum. It wasn't the first time this season that his bench was shorthanded, not that Yallop expects any tears to be shed on his behalf, even as questions about his job security abound.

"People don't really care to hear why we aren't winning," Yallop said. "It's irrelevant to them. To me it isn't ... but in the end it's [about] the results, and that's the tough part."

Yet the SuperLiga has been one competition where the results have come for L.A., which has won three games out of four. And fortunately for Yallop, some help is set to arrive just in time for Wednesday's final, even if some of his players are being held together by duct tape and glue. According to Yallop, defender Abel Xavier is expected to play as are attackers Carlos Pavon, Landon Donovan, and -- it is hoped -- even David Beckham.

All four players trained Tuesday at the Home Depot Center, and while Beckham didn't look particularly mobile in the small-sided game that took place during the session's latter stages, he sounded afterward like someone who expects to play some part in Wednesday's final.

SuperLiga Final
L.A. Galaxy vs. Pachuca,
Aug. 29
Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif.
11 p.m. ET

"It's a lot better than what it was four or five days ago," said Beckham of his tender left ankle. "I trained today and it's still uncomfortable, but having said that, I'm hopefully ready to play tomorrow."

Given the Galaxy's current state, they'll need all the help they can get, especially against a Pachuca side that has plenty of attacking weapons, even without suspended playmaker Andres Chitiva. Midfielders Gabriel Caballero, Christian Gimenez, and Damian Alvarez should provide enough creative guile to compensate for the loss of Chitiva, and forwards Juan Carlos Cacho and Rafael Marquez Lugo are talented enough to test even the most cohesive of back lines, something that doesn't come close to describing L.A.'s defense at the moment.

Nominal outside backs Chris Albright and Ante Jazic are both out with long-term injuries, and rookie center back Ty Harden is sidelined by a troublesome right hip. Xavier's return is a massive boost, but he'll likely be paired with Troy Roberts or Kyle Veris, neither of whom has distinguished himself in the past few weeks. Throw in the inexperienced Mike Randolph at left back along with converted midfielder Chris Klein on the right, and the match has all the makings of a slaughter.

Yet Yallop is still putting a brave face on things, pointing to his side's 2-1 victory over Pachuca during the group phase of the competition as reason for hope.

"It gives you confidence that you can beat a team of Pachuca's stature in our home place," Yallop said. "We did well in that game to come out with a victory. Obviously Pachuca had chances, but we had chances too to make it more."

Yallop was careful to add that the win came during Pachuca's preseason. Since then, Los Tuzos have gotten four league games under their belt, bringing them closer to midseason form. It is this factor, when combined with L.A.'s injury crisis and on-field struggles, which points to Pachuca winning this game rather handily. The fact that a scheduling conflict with landlord Cal-State Dominguez Hills will limit attendance to 12,500 fans (a little less than half the Home Depot Center's capacity) only adds to the Galaxy's woes.

Any hope of a Galaxy win requires Donovan and Beckham to play near peak form, with Xavier, holding midfielder Kevin Harmse and goalkeeper Joe Cannon somehow containing Pachuca's potent attack. It also means the Galaxy will need to show more intestinal fortitude than they have in earlier matches.

"We are going through a time where we are struggling, but it's about us coming together as a team," Beckham said. "I've done it before when I've been part of other teams, and that's what we have to do here because we're better than what we're showing at the moment. It's about us getting back to that."

For the inaugural SuperLiga final, fans will be expecting nothing less.

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