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Oct 5, 2007

Galaxy still in with a shot at playoffs

"The 2007 season is over for the Galaxy."

I wrote that sentence six weeks ago and, as recently as one month ago, the words couldn't have rung more true. David Beckham's season looked finished after he suffered a knee injury in the SuperLiga final, and when the Galaxy players walked off the field after losing to Real Salt Lake on Sept. 1, they were in last place in the West after having gone almost two months without a league victory.

Then things changed in September.

With the Beckham spotlight no longer burning brightly, and expectations all but vanished, the Galaxy found a way to breathe life into a once-comatose season. The Galaxy posted a 4-2-1 mark in September to creep slowly back onto the playoff radar. Now, Los Angeles sits six points out of the final MLS playoff spot with a game in hand. That means a win against the Houston Dynamo on Sunday could pull the Galaxy to within three points of the Chicago Fire, which currently hold the final playoff spot.

Did I mention that the Galaxy's final game of the season is in Chicago against the same Fire team they are chasing?

The turnaround began a month ago against Colorado. The Rapids had a chance to bolster their own playoff hopes with a win against a seemingly helpless L.A. squad. The Galaxy had other ideas, posting a 3-1 victory that was easy enough to write off as Colorado choking rather than the Galaxy waking up.

This was especially true after consecutive losses to Chivas USA and Houston and a disappointing tie against Real Salt Lake, but Los Angeles was playing better soccer, giving the Galaxy reason to believe something could be salvaged from 2007.

Then came the eight-day stretch that pulled the 2007 Galaxy campaign out of the grave. First came a comeback victory against Dallas, followed by consecutive road wins against Kansas City and Columbus. That's all it took to help the Galaxy climb out of the West cellar into contention.

How did Los Angeles do it? By leaning as much on unknown young players as on the assortment of veterans team president Alexi Lalas acquired in his attempt to build a roster that could handle the pressure of playing on a high-profile team. Carlos Pavon, Abel Xavier and Edson Buddle have played little to no part in the team's resurgence and recent three-game winning streak, and players such as Josh Tudela, Mike Randolph and Gavin Glinton have played key roles in the turnaround.

Credit for salvaging something out of this season goes squarely to Frank Yallop, the same coach who just a month ago had the dour look of someone attending a funeral. Rumors were rampant that he would take the fall for the Galaxy's disastrous season, and his body language seemed to suggest just that.

Only the pink slip never came. Whether it was an uncharacteristic example of patience from Lalas or an act of intervention by parent company AEG, Yallop stayed on and was given a chance to show why he has long been regarded as one of the league's best coaches. He sat ineffective veterans and gave young players chances to prove themselves. He tweaked tactics and instilled a belief that his players still could make the playoffs.

The Galaxy's climb back into contention didn't come without some help. The three teams in front of Los Angeles in the race for the final playoff spot posted a combined 14 points from 16 matches, making the pace just slow enough for the Galaxy to come racing in by posting 13 points in September.

Colorado (three points from five matches), Columbus (four points from five matches) and Chicago (seven points from six matches) are still ahead of the Galaxy, but all look vulnerable.

The Rapids were downright awful in September but are the beneficiaries of an October schedule that includes home games against Toronto and Real Salt Lake (though RSL is a much tougher opponent now than earlier in the season). Winning both those matches doesn't guarantee a thing since the Galaxy sit just two points behind Colorado with a game in hand.

Columbus stands four points ahead of the Galaxy, but the Crew's remaining schedule is brutal. This weekend, the Crew will play host to FC Dallas before finishing the regular season with road games against D.C. United and New England. That isn't exactly the path to the playoffs a team with one win in two months wants to be taking.

That leaves Chicago, the strongest of the three teams Los Angeles is chasing. After posting four wins in seven matches under new coach Juan Carlos Osorio, the Fire looked like a lock to grab the final playoff berth -- at least before multiple blown leads left Chicago riding its current four-game streak of ties.

Now the Fire has remaining games against New England and D.C. United before what could be a win-and-you're-in showdown against the Galaxy at Toyota Park on Oct. 21. That scenario would be a dream for MLS, a must-win game between Chicago and Cuauhtemoc Blanco and the Galaxy and Beckham.

Beckham? Yes, Beckham. The English superstar has just returned to practice and very well could take part in the Galaxy's final two matches, against the Red Bulls (Oct. 18) and the Fire. Los Angeles shouldn't worry much about that red-hot spotlight coming back. Beckham's arrival is yesterday's news, and now he and the Galaxy can focus on doing what appeared unthinkable just a month ago, making the MLS playoffs.

Getting there won't be easy. The toughest hurdle comes this weekend, when Los Angeles must travel to Houston to face a Dynamo team that is fighting for first place in the West and reeling from the news of Ricardo Clark's nine-game suspension. Losing would put a severe dent in the Galaxy's playoff quest. A win and suddenly Chicago, Columbus and Colorado will start feeling some serious heat and MLS will start considering the dream scenario of having Beckham and the Galaxy in the playoffs.

There is still work to be done, but the mere fact that Los Angeles is still alive in the playoff chase is a testament to Yallop's determination and the heart of a team that refused to believe its season was over with two months left to play.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.