July 4 is just around the corner, and while the MLS scheduling gurus didn't necessarily plan it this way, Sunday's nationally televised match between D.C. United and the Los Angeles Galaxy will likely witness plenty of pyrotechnics.
The match is serving as an appetizer to the day's main event, the final of Euro 2008, and given the attacking tendencies of both MLS sides, there should be a feast of goals on display. Games involving the Galaxy have averaged a whopping 4.23 goals per game -- way above the league average of 2.75. Matches featuring the Black and Red haven't exactly been dour affairs either, averaging 3.5 goals per contest.
Add in the fact that both sides are among the hottest teams in the league, and you've got one of the more highly anticipated matchups of the MLS season.
Five story lines to follow
1. A battle of high-octane offenses
The game will feature the two most potent attacks in the league. L.A. is the runaway offensive leader with 31 goals in just 13 games. The Galaxy features not only midfielder David Beckham but they also have the top two goal scorers in MLS, with Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle scoring 11 and nine goals, respectively. In fact, Donovan and Buddle have been so prolific that Guatemalan international Carlos Ruiz is struggling to get a place in the lineup.
United's attack possesses forward Luciano Emilio, who is currently tied for third in the race for the Golden Boot with eight goals. But United has been getting contributions from all over the field, with midfielder Clyde Simms and defender Gonzalo Martinez each finding the net in last week's 3-1 win over San Jose.
2. The defense rests
The Galaxy sit atop the Western Conference after going 4-1-1 in their past six games, and while head coach Ruud Gullit owes much of his success to the team's attack, L.A.'s league-worst defense is still giving him plenty of sleepless nights, especially after watching his team blow two leads in last week's 3-3 tie with Columbus.
"We gave some goals away that were unnecessary, so that could have been two points more [in the standings]," said Gullit. "I want to see some more progression still. I don't see it yet."
3. United back on their feet
Back on May 21, a 1-0 loss to Toronto FC left D.C. propping up the Eastern Conference standings with a 2-7-0 record. But since then, United have reeled off four wins and a tie to climb back into the conference race. In many ways, United are a mirror image of the Galaxy. D.C.'s attack trails only L.A. in terms of potency, while its defense ranks next-to-last, just ahead of -- you guessed it -- the Galaxy. But United's defense has been better of late, conceding seven goals in their past five games. Other improvements have caught Soehn's eye as well.
"My focus has been making our team harder to play against," said Soehn. "Part of that is having a good attack of course, but I think overall, we've had a better mentality going into games, especially on the road."
4. The Galaxy's unsung heroes
Perhaps Gullit's biggest feat so far has been squeezing the most out of the other bit-part performers on L.A.'s roster, especially since the salaries of Beckham, Donovan and Ruiz are eating up roughly half of the Galaxy's salary cap. Young players such as defender Sean Franklin along with midfielders Ely Allen and Alvaro Pires have added much to L.A.'s game.
5. Better living through chemistry
When United were struggling earlier this season, part of the reason was due to the roster overhaul the team embarked upon in the offseason, with four new starters being acquired. But with the season now reaching its halfway point, players such as Martinez and Marcelo Gallardo have been fully incorporated into the team, and the result is that the United look much more cohesive.
"Improving the chemistry took a lot longer than I wanted it to," said Soehn. "But now everyone pretty much understands what is required of them, and how to work alongside some of the other guys."
Five players to watch
1. David Beckham, M, Los Angeles
After enduring an injury-plagued 2007, Beckham has proven his worth in 2008. Donovan and Buddle might be getting most of the goals, but Beckham remains the primary distributor in L.A.'s attack, especially with his long-range passing. For that reason, Beckham remains the guy to stop in the eyes of Soehn.
"We have to dictate the terms of the game, pressure L.A. in their end, and have Beckham defending." said Soehn. "He's not going to hurt you as much when he's 60 yards away from the goal as when he's 30 yards away. We've got to turn him into a defender."
2. Lucian Emilio, F, D.C. United
For much of the season's first two months, the burning question in D.C. circles was what's wrong with Emilio? The Brazilian tallied just once in his first nine games, and the other aspects of his game lacked sharpness. But Emilio has scored seven goals in United's recent five-game unbeaten streak, and now appears to be back to his predatory best.
3. Landon Donovan, F, Los Angeles
If Donovan scores Sunday, he'll have tied his career high for goals in a single season (12). As such, one would think that Gullit would be full of praise for the campaign the American is having. Instead, he thinks that Donovan can deliver even more.
"I think he still [relies] too much on his talent," Gullit said of Donovan. "I think he has much more than that. If people ease too much on their talent, you kind of stay at the same level all the time. What I want from him is a progression. He did that already, there was a little progression he made, but I think there is much more in him than he himself thinks. So therefore, I'm going to push him. I'm going to push him harder to do things that will make him more complete."
4. Marcelo Gallardo, M, D.C. United
While Beckham will be orchestrating L.A.'s attack, it will be up to Gallardo to do the same for United. The Argentine's tendency to play from deep-lying positions was among the traits that took some getting used to for his teammates, but with two assists last weekend, Gallardo appears to be hitting peak form.
5. Edson Buddle, F, Los Angeles
Over the past four seasons, Buddle has been passed around like a Christmas fruitcake, playing for four teams in that span. But he finally looks to have found a home in L.A., and a recent goal-scoring binge has him giving Donovan some unlikely competition in the race for the league's top scorer. Gullit credits Buddle's work ethic for his recent run of form.
"He's willing to learn," Gullit said. "He's the first one to come in [to practice] and the last one to come out, so he's been really willing to improve his game."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
L.A. at D.C. United
Noon ET (ABC)
Spain vs. Germany
2:30 p.m. (ABC)