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Sep 26, 2007

Galaxy's playoff hopes flickering but still alive

There are many words that can be used to describe both the Kansas City Wizards and the Los Angeles Galaxy, but "dull" isn't one of them. Under first-year head coach Curt Onalfo, the Wizards have become the MLS version of "Showtime" with an attack-first style that means plenty of goals at both ends of the field. The Galaxy's season has been as compelling as a 10-car pile up. As much as you might try to avert your eyes, you can't help but watch. That said, a win and a tie in their last two games have given L.A.'s woebegone fans a glimmer of good cheer. With the two sides squaring off on this week's edition of "MLS Primetime Thursday", the match should make for interesting theater, regardless of where each team lies in the standings.

Five story lines to watch

1. L.A. is barely alive

It's times like these that a head coach bears a closer resemblance to a snake oil salesman, but such is the Galaxy's plight that manager Frank Yallop is left trying to convince his charges that the playoffs are still a possibility, however remote it might be. David Beckham's likely absence for the rest of the season with a knee injury compunds the situation further. With six matches left, the Galaxy are 11 points out of the last playoff spot, and four of those games are on the road, where they have yet to win all year. Add it all up, and L.A. making the postseason is about as likely as the paparazzi abandoning Lindsay Lohan, yet Yallop is determined to soldier on.

"I think it showed in the last two games that we do believe we can make [the playoffs]," said Yallop. "With all of the stuff that has gone on this year, we still have a chance, which is good, but we know we need to win a lot of games."

2. The Wizards look to regain their mojo

Kansas City began the season on a roll, but the second half has seen them endure a gradual slide down the standings, going just 3-5-2 in their last 10 games. A playoff spot still seems assured, but Onalfo will be eager to shore up a defensive unit that currently ranks next-to-last in the league, conceding 1.58 goals per game.

"If you look at the goals in the run of play, we're probably equal to the better teams in the league, but in terms of set pieces, we've given up too many," said Onalfo.

3. The Galaxy injury glut continues

When players like Kelly Gray and Quavas Kirk returned to the field last week, Yallop thought the proverbial worm had turned as far his team's injury crisis (which has hobbled starters like David Beckham and Chris Albright) was concerned. But Gray re-injured himself during Sunday's pregame warm up, while Kirk hobbled off after 65 minutes with a recurrence of plantar fasciitis, although he might play Thursday. Combine that with Kevin Harmse's suspension for accumulation of yellow cards, and Yallop is again struggling to find enough healthy bodies for Thursday's match.

4. The Cardiac Kids

The Wizards' strike-first mentality has meant for some entertaining soccer, and a defibrillator strategically positioned beside Onalfo. Nine of the Wizards' 26 matches have been decided by goals in the last 15 minutes, with K.C. winning seven of them. Kansas City's 12 goals in that time frame are tied for the league lead, but they've also allowed nine, the most recent of which came in last week's 2-1 loss to Chivas USA. Yet Onalfo is determined to maintain his team's attacking mind-set.

"We're a team that puts opponents on their heels because we take risks," said Onalfo. "We understand that we may concede more goals than some of the other teams, but we also feel we're a team that's going to score a lot more goals."

5. Leaning on Landon

With seven goals and nine assists, Landon Donovan has accounted for more than half of the Galaxy's 30 league goals, begging the question: Is L.A. relying on Donovan too much? Other players like New York's Juan Pablo Angel and Kansas City's Eddie Johnson have similar ratios, but given the Galaxy's injured list, the bigger issue is that Donovan is L.A.'s only consistent attacking threat.

"We haven't had a team that can support the abilities of our top players, because we've been disjointed," said Yallop. "We've never had the same lineup and that's been the big problem."

Five players to watch

1. Eddie Johnson, F, Kansas City

While Johnson's scoring pace has cooled in the season's second half, he remains the focal point of the Wizards' attack, especially with usual running mate Scott Sealy still hobbled by a quadriceps strain. Yet even if Johnson's season were to end tomorrow, 2007 has seen him enjoy a career season, banishing the demons that have plagued him the last two years.

"It been enjoyable to watch [Johnson's] progress," said Onalfo. "He may not be scoring as much now, but he's doing the little things that our team needs to be better. He's helping us defensively and he's combining better than he ever has."

2. Ty Harden, D, Los Angeles

Like most rookies, Harden has taken his lumps under incredibly adverse circumstances, and with defender Abel Xavier out with a tender left knee, Harden will need to shoulder more responsibility, even as he copes with an injured right hip of his own. His pairing against the lightning-quick Johnson has all the makings of a mismatch, but Yallop has little choice but to show continued faith in the rookie.

"I think he [hit the wall], and then he got injured, but the break has helped him," said Yallop of Harden. "He's come back strong, and had a couple of good games in a row, so he's done OK."

3. Kerry Zavagnin, M, Kansas City

As the 2006 season drew to a close, Zavagnin appeared to be on the downside of his career, as he was in and out of the lineup. But 2007 has seen him enjoy something of a renaissance, and Zavagnin has been an ever-present force in the Wizards' midfield this season.

"Zavagnin has a high soccer IQ in terms of how he moves and helps us pressure the ball," said Onalfo. "He's the brains of our midfield."

4. Chris Klein, D, Los Angeles

With L.A.'s injury crisis hitting the back line especially hard, and with Klein a midfielder by trade, his play at right back has provided Yallop with some stability in a season that has seen precious little in that regard. Klein has even found time to get forward, delivering a stunning bicycle-kick equalizer in the SuperLiga final against Pachuca, as well as last week's searing drive against Dallas that proved to be the game-winner.

"[Klein] is a great pro," said Yallop. "What I like about him is he's a man, he just gets on with his job and doesn't worry about anything. He's been very consistent since he's arrived."

5. Eloy Colombano, F, Kansas City

When Colombano joined the Wizards in August, it was assumed he would line up in a wide attacking role. But injuries to Scott Sealy and Ryan Pore mean that Colombano likely will partner Johnson up top on Thursday, and if his performance against Chivas last weekend is any indication, it's a role in which the Argentine could excel. Colombano was on hand to bang home a rebound of a Johnson shot, and showed a consistent ability to get behind the defense.

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