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Aug 20, 2008

L.A. likely shorthanded in Arena's first game

With all the parity in Major League Soccer, midseason acquisitions can be crucial to a team's fortunes as the race for the playoffs heats up. Key additions to the roster led to bottom-of-the-table San Jose comprehensively beating the New England Revolution, the newly crowned SuperLiga champs. Now the "MLS Primetime Thursday" matchup showcases whether a team that has brought in a new star player will outduel one that has opted for new administration.

The Chicago Fire acquired Brian McBride in July, but had to wait until his stint with the U.S. Olympic team was over to benefit from his skill as a target forward. McBride made his debut in the second half of last week's match versus D.C. United. He did quite well for someone who had little time to get familiar with his new teammates, but the Fire still suffered a loss.

The Los Angeles Galaxy, however, are on a winless streak of eight games, a run so dire that general manager Alexi Lalas was fired and coach Ruud Gullit resigned. Team owners AEG lost little time installing former U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena as general manager and head coach. Dave Sarachan has also joined the staff as associate head coach.

Five story lines to follow

1. Bruce Arena, team savior?

Hopes were high for the U.S. squad in 1998 after a respectable showing in the previous World Cup. Instead, the talent of the team just didn't mesh on the field, producing an inconsistent effort that resulted in a quick exit. Arena, who won two MLS championships with D.C. United, barreled into a volatile situation fearlessly, taking over for the outgoing Steve Sampson. Arena was credited with making important decisions that turned the mentality of players around and laid the groundwork for a successful U.S. showing in 2002.

Looking at those credentials, Arena seems like a perfect fit for the Galaxy. It's evident that he has talent.

"With Landon Donovan and David Beckham, I've got good things to work with," Arena said on his first day of practice.

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However, Arena's MLS success came at the very start of the league, with a powerhouse D.C. roster. His record as coach of Red Bull New York was decidedly mediocre (16-16-10 in the regular season), and the 2006 edition of the U.S. national team was anything but impressive at the World Cup.

2. Sarachan strikes back

The Galaxy's associate head coach knows the Fire team well because he used to coach the squad until he was relieved of the post last year. Sarachan has already been drilling the beleaguered Galaxy defense in tactical schemes to blunt the Fire attack. He has been Arena's first coaching lieutenant in many situations before, and Sarachan would like nothing better than to prove that Chicago made a mistake by sending him away.

3. World Cup repercussions

The World Cup qualifier between Guatemala and the U.S. on Wednesday affects Galaxy players on both sides, as Carlos Ruiz and Landon Donovan will line up for their respective national squads. Both are expected to be back for the MLS match, but they'll be on weary legs because the two are crucial players for their teams. Arena will likely avoid using either for anything other than a few substitute minutes. David Beckham will not travel back from his stint with England in time to face the Fire.

It's not as if Chicago is unaffected, either. Gonzalo Segares, Marco Pappa and Cuauhtemoc Blanco have been called up for Costa Rica, Guatemala and Mexico, respectively. It's possible that one or more will only see a little playing time, though, and that could work out nicely for the Fire.

4. Defense wins championships

The Fire sit third in the Eastern conference, and the team has generally displayed a solid defensive effort, especially as compared to the sieve that is the Galaxy defense. With Beckham unavailable and Ruiz and Donovan likely limited, the pressure is on Los Angeles to find a way to score to secure a result. The bottom line is that even if they do manage a goal, no one will believe the Galaxy can be a playoff contender if the defense doesn't improve drastically.

5. No place like home

Galaxy fans have had little to cheer for, since their team hasn't won in a good while. While many might welcome change, it could take a while for them to warm up to Arena, given that his D.C. United squads were bitter rivals of the Galaxy. Fan reaction could be subdued until the wins start arriving.

Meanwhile, Blanco enjoys a huge amount of support from many Mexican fans in the L.A. area. It could very well be that the Fire players end up feeling like the home squad.

Five players to watch

1. Edson Buddle

Arena traded Buddle out of New York in 2007 for Tim Regan, a defender that isn't even in the league any more. Although the strong forward has had an impressive season with the Galaxy thus far, he could regress if he feels stuck with a coach who does not believe in him.

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2. Alan Gordon

A clutch header in stoppage time by Gordon salvaged a draw in the team's previous game. Gordon may look awkward on the ball numerous times, but if he finds a way to get the job done for L.A. under pressure, he could be the team's saving grace.

3. Jon Busch

Busch is the general of the Chicago defense, and his hyper energy helps fuel the efforts of the back line in front of him. If he makes a good save early on, the entire team can ride that momentum to a good result.

4. Brian McBride

He was still getting his legs under him in his first game with the Fire, but now that McBride has gotten a little more time with the squad, he should make more of an impact. The tall forward is deadly in the air when he is able to get good service from teammates.

5. Justin Mapp

Depending on the toll that travel and international play take on Blanco, Mapp will likely have to step up his playmaking duties.

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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