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First place in the West at stake in Superclásico

Whenever the Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA get together, the intensity meter is always hovering near the red line. Such is the way of things when two bitter rivals who share the same stadium meet on the field, even if there is nothing to play for but local pride.

That has usually been the case when the teams have tangled in the past. When the Galaxy were in the ascendancy, Chivas were fighting to avoid last place. And when the Goats rose to become one of the elite teams in the league, L.A. was contriving to miss the playoffs.

But this week's meeting on "MLS Primetime Thursday" will have a slightly different flavor. Just past the halfway point in the season, the two sides find themselves tied for first place in the Western Conference standings, meaning there will be more than just bragging rights at stake.

Five story lines to follow

1. The Superclásico

Thursday's match marks the second time the two sides have met this season, with the Galaxy romping to a 5-2 victory on April 26. L.A. manager Ruud Gullit played for clubs like A.C. Milan, Chelsea, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord, and he participated in some of the most intense derby games in the world. While Thursday's matchup doesn't quite compare to those games, Gullit certainly felt the heightened emotions during that April encounter.

"It's all about 'King of the Castle,'" Gullit said in a Borat moment. "But this is going to be a totally different game. In derbies, you never know what is going to happen. It's all about passion."

2. Survivor MLS

MLS Primetime
Thursday
Chivas USA at L.A.
11 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN360.com)

That Chivas find themselves anywhere near the top of the Western Conference is nothing short of miraculous given the spate of injuries they've survived so far this season, but Goats head coach Preki has so far navigated his team through that minefield. Chivas are still missing players like Maykel Galindo, Alecko Eskandarian and Lawson Vaughn. For that reason, Preki is taking nothing for granted, even as players like Jonathan Bornstein and Ante Razov round into form.

"We're hoping to get our injured guys back by the end of the month," Preki said. "But for now we're just plugging away and trying to make it difficult for the teams that we're playing."

3. L.A. needs some Kevlar

The past two weeks have seen the Galaxy achieve the impossible. Their defense has actually gotten worse. L.A.'s back line was shredded in a 4-1 loss to D.C. United on June 29, and while it's tempting to think that things improved during last week's 2-1 loss to New England, that was more due to some profligate finishing on the part of the Revs rather than better defending. Reinforcements are on the way in the form of Argentine defender Eduardo Dominguez, but not in time for Thursday's game, meaning Gullit will have to make do with what he has.

"We haven't discussed any tactical changes yet, but I think everyone knows where the mistakes have been made," Gullit said.

4. Chivas' midfield reliance

The team's spate of injuries has hit its corps of defenders and forwards the hardest, meaning that the midfield has been the glue that has kept the team together on both sides of the ball. Such has been their level of play that even Preki -- a coach difficult to please in the best of times -- has been impressed.

"I think our midfield is starting to turn the corner," Preki said. "For us to be successful, our play in the midfield has to be good because we put a lot of faith in our midfield in how we play. We also put a lot of faith in how we defend as a group, and I think the group has done a pretty decent job."

5. Where is the Little Fish?

In the preseason, the Galaxy acquired forward Carlos Ruiz in the hope that he would provide a third option in attack alongside David Beckham and Landon Donovan. But after an early-season knee injury put Ruiz on the shelf, he has been reduced to a substitute's role. Rumors are running rampant that the Guatemalan international is on the trading block, and given the team's offensive performance, Gullit is in no hurry to alter his lineup.

"[Ruiz] has a lot of competition in that Edson Buddle and Donovan are playing really, really well," Gullit said. "So for him, it's difficult to get into the team."

Five players to watch

1. Sacha Kljestan, M, Chivas USA

With forwards like Galindo and Eskandarian both out with sports hernias, Kljestan has been one of the players asked to pick up the goal-scoring slack; so far, the Seton Hall product has delivered, leading the team with five goals. Kljestan lines up ostensibly on the right side of midfield, but he has quickly evolved into one of those creative players who is capable of popping up anywhere on the field.

2. Landon Donovan, F, Los Angeles

While Donovan leads the league with 11 goals, he has not found the back of the net in the past two games. Still, his combination of passing, finishing and pace remains a vital part of the L.A. attack. This was borne out in last week's loss to New England, when Donovan sat out the first half with the flu and L.A. struggled in his absence.

"We saw in the first half how bad we were in midfield, so Donovan needed to play," Gullit said. "And he came in [at halftime] and made an impact. He played really well."

3. Ante Razov, F, Chivas USA

Without Galindo's speed to stretch opposition defenses, Razov has had to modify his game somewhat, dropping deeper into midfield and spraying passes to the likes of Kljestan and Panchito Mendoza. But Razov can still finish with the best of them, as exemplified by his inch-perfect free kick last week against San Jose that propelled Chivas to a 1-0 win.

"Razov has been healthy now for a while, and he's getting better and better," Preki said. "He looked good out there [on Saturday], made some good decisions and got the winning goal. We can only be encouraged by what we saw."

4. Alvaro Pires, M, Los Angeles

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With Chivas living and dying by its midfield, and given the defensive frailty the Galaxy have displayed so far this season, Pires will have to be at his tenacious best on Thursday. This is especially true given the physical nature of the Goats' central midfield tandem of Jesse Marsch and Paulo Nagamura.

5. Jonathan Bornstein, D, Chivas USA

Fully recovered from a left knee sprain, Bornstein has now reclaimed his spot on the left side of the Chivas defense and went the full 90 minutes in his team's win over San Jose. Given that the U.S. international will be up against L.A. superstar David Beckham this week, his recovery will face its biggest test yet.

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

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