When the Los Angeles Galaxy last visited the Chicago Fire, it was the final game of the 2007 regular season and a spot in the playoffs was on the line. That day, the Fire prevailed 1-0, booking their trip to the postseason, while the Galaxy went home to be playoff spectators for the second year running.
Almost one year later, plenty has changed, yet much remains the same, as the two teams square off on "MLS Primetime Thursday" (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2). The Galaxy have burned through two coaches since that October day, yet even with Bruce Arena now on board, they could miss the playoffs again. Chicago, meanwhile, has survived the defection of 2007's manager, Juan Carlos Osorio, and looks set to return to the postseason under Denis Hamlett. But a recent two-game losing streak and an inability to find the net consistently have cast doubts on the Fire's championship aspirations.
Five story lines to follow
1. Arena-ball begins in earnest
This past weekend's 5-2 win over D.C. United was not only Arena's first in five tries as L.A.'s coach, but it was the team's first win in more than three months. Injuries and a spate of international player commitments have made Arena's job tougher than normal, but with L.A. just two points out of a playoff spot, the former U.S. national team manager is convinced the win can be a catalyst for getting back to the postseason.
"The win keeps us in the race, but it's also psychologically important for the players," Arena said. "They need to see something that they're working toward, and I think the three points is really a shot in the arm for everyone."
Los Angeles at Chicago
9 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN360.com)
2. Chicago's late-summer slide
The Fire were flying high for much of the season, but four losses in their past six games have seen them fall into third place in the Eastern Conference. In an effort to break his team out of its funk, Hamlett tried to mix up his attack this past weekend, bringing Andy Herron into the lineup. It didn't work, as the Fire were hammered 4-1 at home by Brimstone Cup rivals FC Dallas. Yet Hamlett is hoping the rout will serve as a wakeup call for his team.
"The key is not conceding that first goal," said Hamlett. "Because then we have to push up a little bit more and we leave ourselves open at the back for the counter."
3. Fading fortunes for designated players
Heading into the 2008 season, great things were expected of both the Fire's Cuauhtemoc Blanco and the Galaxy's David Beckham. And while both players delivered during the early part of the campaign, each has seen his productivity drop as the season has progressed. Beckham has garnered only two assists in the past two months, while Blanco has been even less effective, with just two helpers since the end of May. The international commitments of both players certainly have had effects, but with the playoffs in sight, each team desperately needs its designated player to step up.
4. No D in Los Angeles
One aspect that has remained the same under Arena's stewardship is the Galaxy's woeful defense. L.A. has given up at least two goals in 11 of its past 13 games. Yet Arena insists he's spending his energy looking forward rather than at past failures, and he likes what he sees from some of the present personnel.
"I haven't spent a whole lot of time looking at the previous 20 games, whatever that number was, who actually played and everything else," Arena said. "It doesn't do me any good. Right now, I happen to think that the two young center backs are doing fine, in Troy Roberts and Sean Franklin. I think they've done well."
5. Chicago shooting blanks
While the Fire's league-leading defense has all but assured their postseason participation, their offense has struggled of late, tallying only seven times in their past nine games. Not even the addition of former U.S. international Brian McBride has been enough for the Fire to break out of their late-season slumber.
"I think the most glaring [difference] is that earlier in the year we were finishing our chances," said Hamlett. "We were very clinical and we were able to put games away. When you're able to do that, it makes it easier, because for the most part, defensively we've been very sound this year."
Five players to watch
1. John Thorrington, M, Chicago
Nobody loves L.A. quite like So-Cal native Thorrington. Granted, given the Galaxy's inept defending, plenty of other players do too, but Thorrington -- who spent the 2007 preseason with the Galaxy -- has enjoyed particular success against them his entire MLS career. Three of his seven career goals have come against L.A., including the playoff-clincher last season, as well as the game-winner back on August 21.
"It's just a game [Thorrington] gets himself up for," said Hamlett. "But day in, day out, he's just such a competitor. The different positions you ask him to play, you still know what you're going to get from him."
2. Landon Donovan, M, Los Angeles
With rumors of a move to Europe gathering steam, Donovan continues to enjoy the best club season of his career. The U.S. international had never scored more than 12 goals in a season prior to the current campaign, but with 19 tallies already, the Galaxy club record of 24 goals (set by Carlos Ruiz in 2002) looks well within reach. Arena believes Donovan has even more to give.
"I think Donovan is playing well, but I think he can play even better," Arena said. "I don't think he's as fit as he can be, and that has forced him to be in and out of games because of his fitness level. I've seen over the last month or so that he's gotten himself a little bit sharper there."
3. Bakary Soumare, D, Chicago
It probably wasn't a coincidence that Chicago's defensive meltdown this past weekend happened with Soumare serving a suspension for yellow card accumulation. The University of Virginia product has delivered a breakout season in 2008, with his rugged tackling and 6-foot-4 frame making him a candidate for defender of the year.
4. Greg Vanney, M, Los Angeles
With just about every other holding midfielder on the roster either injured or not fully fit, Vanney, a defender for almost his entire career, has been pressed into service in the center of the park. In some ways, Vanney's tackling and passing are tailor-made for the role, but his lack of range is evident, especially given that he's playing behind the attack-minded Donovan. Still, Arena is appreciative of the veteran's efforts.
"As I looked around the roster, we needed a little bit more experience to play there," Arena said. "Greg has given us some good minutes in that position."
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5. Brian McBride, F, Chicago
The former U.S. international has tried his best to spark Chicago's attack. McBride has delivered his usual blue-collar effort, holding the ball up well while scoring two goals in six games. But for the scoring to continue, he'll need to establish more cohesion from the likes of Thorrington and Blanco.
"It's not something that happens overnight," said Hamlett of McBride's assimilation. "But the thing we're happy with is the presence that he brings to the team, the work rate that he brings, and his leadership qualities. In these games now, those things become more important because he's a guy who has played in big games."
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.