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Aug 12, 2008

Chivas faces a reeling Galaxy squad

It might surprise some that former Los Angeles Galaxy coaches Ruud Gullit and Steve Sampson have a particular record in common -- they've never lost to their intracity rival, Chivas USA. Of course, since both maintained losing records overall while leading the club, coming out on top in the local derby didn't really help their cause much.

At this point, neither team has the luxury of considering their Thursday night match a special event, one where bitter opponents clash in a contest that means more than the league standings. The records of both squads are rather poor, especially as of late.

Though the Galaxy have been through more turmoil recently, Chivas USA needs to win just as badly. Because of the new league format (top two teams in each conference advance to the postseason, then the next four teams in the points standings, regardless of conference), both teams would miss the playoffs at this point.

Five story lines to follow

1. Will the Galaxy shakeup leave their players too rattled to win?

The move is unprecedented -- both the coach and general manager gone in the same week. However, it wasn't entirely unexpected. The blood was in the water after a remarkably poor performance in a 4-0 loss to Dallas and a continued winless streak.

But change hasn't sparked the Galaxy quickly in the past -- the team actually faced Chivas USA in a new coach's first game when Frank Yallop took over in 2006. The team suffered the first loss ever to its rivals.

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

"I don't think it will help them," said Chivas USA defender Claudio Suarez. "Drastic changes often take awhile to lead to better results. We hope it upsets them, but we're going to focus on ourselves."

On the other hand, if the regime of Alexi Lalas and Ruud Gullit was a cancer that has now been cut away from the squad, Galaxy players might respond with a revitalized performance.

"Clearly, there was dissension, there were people pointing fingers," said Tim Leiweke, president of the owners of the Galaxy, AEG. "We needed a clean sweep."

2. Can Claudio Suarez escape the aftereffects of a concussion?

The Chivas USA captain didn't travel with the team to its most recent game because he was still recovering from a concussion sustained in a match versus Chicago.

Head injuries are always tricky -- sometimes a player may be fine until he starts running and practicing hard, then dizzy spells and headaches result. Chivas USA has been careful with its veteran, but Preki is clearly hoping for the return of Suarez, as well as other key players, such as Ante Razov and Maykel Galindo.

"We're on the verge of getting important guys back so we can make a push for the playoffs," said Preki.

3. Can Chivas USA clear an Olympic hurdle?

It was bad enough that Chivas USA lost perhaps its best player, Brad Guzan, to a transfer to Aston Villa. Chivas was able to replace him with Zach Thornton, an experienced MLS player. However, as long as the U.S. team survives in the Olympics, Chivas USA must do without one of its primary playmakers, Sacha Kljestan.

"Sacha leaves big shoes to fill," said defender Shavar Thomas. "He provided a lot for us on offense."

Kljestan's club teammates have followed his Olympic success with perhaps only a bit of longing that his skills would be available to them as well.

"We saw his goal and we're proud that he and Brad are doing well," Suarez said.

They may be pleased for him, but Chivas USA is not Barcelona giving up Messi and calling instead on a host of other superlative stars. The team misses Kljestan and is scrambling to plug the gap until his return.

4. Which player-turned-coach will prevail?

Preki and Cobi Jones faced each other many times in their playing days. Now they both stand on the sidelines of their respective teams, but their competitive natures still serve as strong motivators.

Jones is a Galaxy icon, but he was successful for many years by sticking to what he knew how to do. Coaching is a new arena for him and the pressure at this point is boiler room hot.

Jones could add a new chapter to his Galaxy legacy, or he could potentially tarnish the one he has already established.

"He knows what it's like to wear that Galaxy uniform," said Leiweke. "He understands how we thrive."

Preki, however, has proved his coaching chops by winning the 2007 coach of the year. It remains to be seen if the assistant experience Jones gained working alongside Gullit proves as valuable as Preki's time with Bob Bradley.

5. Does the rivalry still matter?

One of the ways in which Preki led his team to success versus the Galaxy was to de-emphasize the match and dial down the drama of the SuperClasico. He correctly diagnosed that his team would suffer a sort of performance anxiety in reaction to the hype of the contest. Preki then focused on repeating to his players that the Galaxy were just another opponent.

His players now maintain that mindset.

"It's like playing against every other team," said Thomas. "I just go out and play hard."

Derby games are supposed to be special. If the players don't believe that, though, how long can fans maintain that illusion? In a league that lacks much spice and can often drift into muddling mediocrity, games that stand out and are highly anticipated are rare.

Publicity isn't Preki's problem, though. He's looking at getting his team a win.

"When you have two teams in the same building, people look at that," Preki said. "We're looking at the three points. It's a good game for the fans."

Five players to watch

1. Landon Donovan

Donovan seemed bitter after Yallop's departure, as he counted the coach as a personal friend. Despite the Galaxy's struggles, Donovan has had his highest-scoring season by far under Gullit. How he responds to the departure of the Dutch coach will be key for the Galaxy.

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2. Francisco Mendoza

The only original member of the squad still with Chivas USA, Mendoza will mark the milestone of 100 matches in uniform for the Red-and-White. Always a spark plug with his speedy runs, Mendoza's historic accomplishment may motivate him to exhibit an extra bit of fearless initiative.

3. Jesse Marsch

Marsch sets the tone for Chivas USA, and he's not afraid to do it with a hard foul. The veteran midfielder still carries the notoriety of the high kick that he gave to David Beckham last year, and the scrum that action touched off. It was after that play, however, that Chivas USA went on a run and scored to win the game. Marsch has the skill to make the plays that send his team to victory, but he's more then willing to administer the muscle needed as well.

4. David Beckham

The Galaxy captain creates numerous chances for his squad when he plays well. He tends to lead by example rather than by words, but if there was anything Gullit harped on before departing, it was that he expected more leadership from his star. Beckham has a chance to steer the squad out of its troubled waters.

5. Edson Buddle

Buddle revived his career under Gullit. Forwards are fueled by confidence, and if Buddle is trying too hard to prove himself to a new regime, his goal output may dry up drastically. Jones shared a championship season with Carlos Ruiz, a forward who has been used little this season due to both injury and Buddle's impressive production. If Buddle falters, Jones might turn to Ruiz.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.

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