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Oct 10, 2007

Galaxy firing on all cylinders during remarkable run

There is an old sports axiom that states that the more desperate a team is, the more likely they are to win. And based on that theory, this week's edition of "MLS Primetime Thursday" favors the Los Angeles Galaxy in their match with the New York Red Bulls.

Right now, L.A. is the very definition of desperate, needing at least four points in their last two matches to qualify for the postseason. The Red Bulls' playoff fate, however, has been determined right down to whom they will play and when, with an opening-round matchup with the New England Revolution already set.

Yet New York proved last week to be the exception to the rule when it faced a Kansas City team fighting for its playoff life; coach Bruce Arena and his Red Bulls still managed to emerge with a 2-1 win. And with New York looking to work out some kinks before the postseason, the Galaxy's task will be anything but easy.

Five story lines to watch

1. L.A.'s incredible run

Six weeks ago the Galaxy looked dead and buried, but a 5-0-1 streak has seen L.A. climb back into the playoff race to the point where the team now controls its own destiny. If the Galaxy win their last two games, they are in. But the job for head coach Frank Yallop is more complicated than just turning his team loose. Managing nerves and maintaining discipline can become more difficult under such circumstances, but Yallop likes the body language his team is displaying.

"Our guys are used to the nerves, because we've been under pressure the whole year," Yallop said. "Now the pressure has died down, and I look at the players, and they can't wait for the next game."

2. New York's revolving door on defense

Arena has been in "mad scientist mode" for much of the season's second half, trying any and all combinations in a continued search for defensive consistency. Last week goalkeeper Jon Conway and defenders Hunter Freeman and Carlos Mendes returned to the lineup, and the results were encouraging. With only one more opportunity to develop some cohesion, Arena is hopeful his defense will take another step forward.

3. Will David Beckham return to the field?

David Beckham. Remember him? Midfielder. English. Injured. But Beckham's tender right knee and left ankle have now been deemed healthy enough for him to return to full training, and while the Galaxy would no doubt welcome the English international back into the fold, Yallop remains cautious.

"I think the test will be after training ... how Beckham feels," Yallop said. "Hopefully we can get him included in the squad, but he's been out for a while, and we're not rushing anything."

4. Where's Claudio?

L.A. isn't the only team with an ailing designated player. The Red Bulls' Claudio Reyna has been sidelined with turf toe for the past two weeks, and while Reyna's play hasn't always lived up to his hefty salary, Arena is eager to get his captain as close to full fitness as possible.

"These injuries take time," Arena said of Reyna's latest ailment. "Our goal is to have him ready for the playoffs."

5. L.A.'s young guns

What has been most surprising about the Galaxy's resurrection is that they've done it fielding some inexperienced players. Performers like midfielder Josh Tudela and defender Mike Randolph have played beyond their years and allowed the Galaxy to survive what would normally have been a crippling string of injuries.

"Sometimes you play guys out of necessity, and it's like, 'Wow,'" Yallop said. "What I like about both [Tudela and Randolph] is that they've taken their chances to play and done well. They've not been afraid."

Five players to watch

1. Juan Pablo Angel, F, New York

Angel has been among the best signings by any team this season. His 19 goals in 23 games have proved to be a massive boost for the Red Bulls. But Angel has also shown a willingness to do some dirty work, dropping back into midfield and holding the ball up against Kansas City, and this attitude has impressed Arena, as well.

"[Angel] has done a pretty good job with the young players, and I think he cares, which is extremely important," Arena said. "That's what leading is about. He's done a good a good job not only with his teammates but with the coaching staff, as well."

2. Landon Donovan, F, Los Angeles

With Beckham out injured, much of the creative responsibility has fallen to Donovan, and he's delivered. His three goals in the past six games have all come from the penalty spot during L.A.'s streak, and just as vital have been his four assists. At the heart of Donovan's effectiveness has been the free role given to him by Yallop, which has allowed him to pop up wherever there is space on the field. For Yallop, Donovan's leadership also has been impressive.

"You want to talk about being a true professional during bad times, Donovan, for me, has been outstanding for us this year," Yallop said.

3. Jozy Altidore, F, New York

The 17-year-old was enjoying a stellar season before a left leg injury sidelined him for several weeks in September. Altidore has now returned to the lineup, but Arena is keen to get the teenager back on the score sheet before the playoffs start in 10 days.

"I think Altidore had a combination of fatigue and injury coming out of that World Youth Cup," Arena said. "I think he's coming out of that now. He's looked pretty sharp lately."

4. Gavin Glinton, F, Los Angeles

Glinton was out of professional soccer for two years before resurrecting his career with the USL's Charleston Battery in 2006 and then signing with L.A. at the end of that season. During the Galaxy's current six-game unbeaten streak, Glinton has been L.A.'s designated super-sub, scoring three goals and earning a penalty in last week's 2-1 win over Toronto.

"[Glinton] has a knack for the goal," Yallop said. "He gets in the right spots. He's always in the box, always dangerous. I love what he's done for us off the bench, but at some point, we'll hopefully give him a start."

5. Jon Conway, G, New York

Conway has been in a season-long battle with Ronald Waterreus for the starting goalkeeper job. With the team leaking goals, Arena put Conway back in the lineup and the eight-year veteran delivered, saving a penalty from the Wizards' Eddie Johnson to preserve the Red Bulls' 2-1 win.

"Saving the penalty was huge in that game," Arena said of Conway's play. "He also made one or two saves in the run of play, so overall he gets high grades."

5a. David Beckham, M, Los Angeles

If Beckham does in fact play -- and at this point it's still an 'if' -- all eyes will be firmly on the English midfielder to see how well he's recovered from his multiple injuries (knee and ankle). MLS fans have yet to see Beckham display his full array of talents, largely in part due to his limited mobility on the field.

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