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Apr 9, 2009

L.A. and Chivas appear headed in opposite directions

The rivalry between the Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA can be neatly summarized as a battle of glitz versus grit.

While both teams are based in L.A. and share the Home Depot Center, the Galaxy organization has always projected itself as the city's glamour team, with players like Landon Donovan in tow -- although with David Beckham working on his Italian job for the next few months, there's a little less of that surrounding the side these days. As for Chivas, the fact that its red-and-white jerseys also sport blue collars is utterly appropriate.

Of course, Galaxy players know all too well that style will only get you so far. Los Angeles, despite its passel of stars, has missed the playoffs for three years running, while Chivas has qualified for the postseason every year during that span. But when the Galaxy and Chivas USA meet on the field (Saturday, 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360), the chance to put one over on an archrival trumps any and all history, and that will certainly be the case when the two sides meet Saturday on ESPN's Game of the Week.

Five story lines to follow

1. The resumption of the SuperClásico

As if further proof were needed that recent form counts for nothing when these teams meet, just look at the results from last year's games involving the two clubs. The Galaxy might have endured a train wreck of a season in 2008, but that didn't stop them from going 1-0-2 against their playoff-bound neighbors. And with his team stumbling out of the gate with a 0-1-1 record, L.A. head coach Bruce Arena is hoping that this year's first installment of the SuperClásico will give his team the spark that it needs.

"If there is such a thing as a derby in MLS, this is it," said Arena. "It's not only important to our team, but our fan base. Everyone wants to have the bragging rights, and any team that comes out on top is going to have the edge for the rest of the year."

2. Wounded Chivas still flying high

MLS Primetime
Saturday
Los Angeles Galaxy at Chivas USA
Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif.
10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360

With the season just three weeks old, the Goats are tied with expansion Seattle for the league's best record at 3-0-0. That the best start in their history has been accompanied by their usual glut of injuries is nothing short of miraculous. But after enduring similar trials the last two seasons, such heroics are old hat for head coach Preki, even as the list of bizarre ailments continues to grow. Defender Ante Jazic sustained a concussion when he was hit in the head with a ball. Mariano Trujillo injured his ribs following a collision in training last week.

"These are the kind of injuries that we can't control," said Preki. "They're just fluke injuries. It's not like the guys are pulling hamstrings and things like that. It's been kind of unlucky, but we keep going. We don't have time to complain about it and feel sorry for ourselves."

3. L.A. still defenseless

After joining the Galaxy in the middle of last season, Arena made it his offseason priority to shore up the team's league-worst defense. So far, there is little evidence of improvement, with L.A. coughing up five goals in their two games. The team even contrived to concede a goal against Colorado straight from an opening kickoff where L.A. had possession.

"[The kickoff] was a remarkable exercise in that we basically, through our ineptness, started the game spotting the other team a goal," said Arena.

That said, the team has defended decently for long stretches, but some catastrophic breakdowns in communication have undone much of that work, with several players showing their youth.

"We know in some cases we're going to have inexperienced players make mistakes, and you'd like to believe that the players around them will help get them through those mistakes," said Arena. "We haven't been able to do that with any consistency over the first two games."

4. Chivas' cast of no-names getting it done

What's even more surprising about the Red-and-White's start is the cast of unknown performers that has assumed the role of hero. Mexican journeyman Eduardo Lillingston has scored in each of the last two games, while winger Gerson Mayen, a graduate of Chivas USA's U-18 team, has recorded two assists. The ability of Preki to squeeze the most out of such players has been one of the keys to the team's success.

5. L.A. still looking for midfield shield

The offseason acquisition of Dema Kovalenko was intended to give the Galaxy more bite in midfield and take some pressure off the back line. As it turned out, Kovalenko did his job a little bit too well on Saturday when he drew a straight red card for a studs-up challenge on Mehdi Ballouchy of the the Rapids. With Kovalenko now suspended, it seems likely that another offseason recruit, Stefani Miglioranzi, will take his place, and his ability to provide some midfield steel against counterparts Jesse Marsch and Paulo Nagamura will have a significant bearing on the outcome.

Five players to watch

1. Sacha Kljestan, M, Chivas USA

While the Goats have been on fire, their attacking linchpin has been eerily quiet in the two games he's seen action. Granted, his time away with the U.S. national team has no doubt taken a toll, and his poor performance against El Salvador may have shaken his confidence, but Kljestan will need to get his swagger back for Chivas to continue their fine run.

"I think Sacha is a little bit tired," said Preki. "He's been traveling quite a bit. I talked to him the other day about getting his legs and his sharpness back, and that's something we're going to look into ... I'm sure at some point real soon we'll see Sacha at his best."

2. Landon Donovan, F, Los Angeles

When Donovan's loan stint with German giant Bayern Munich ended with his returning stateside, concern arose that such a disappointment might affect his play. If it has, it's been all for the better, as Donovan has opened the season recording two goals and two assists. The U.S. international has also tormented Chivas USA in the past, recording seven goals and eight assists in 11 matches.

3. Jesse Marsch, M, Chivas USA

Along with Nagamura, Marsch forms the backbone of the Chivas side, with his tough tackling and simple passing providing the team with a solid platform from which to operate. Marsch also reached a notable milestone recently when he appeared in his 300th MLS game. Marsch insists he's still going strong, but Preki has modified his role somewhat this season.

"We're asking [Marsch] to sit a little bit more in front of the defense, and not to try and go all over the field, to save his legs and stay fresh" said Preki. "I think he's been doing a better job of those things."

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4. Gregg Berhalter, D, Los Angeles

An aging defender would appear to be the last thing L.A. needs, yet at age 35, Berhalter's experiences, both overseas and with the U.S. national team, could provide the kind of stabilizing influence the Galaxy need. It's possible that Arena may persist with the current pairing of rookie Omar Gonzales and veteran Tony Sanneh in the center of defense, but the Galaxy coach sounded like a man ready to put Berhalter in the starting lineup.

"I think [Berhalter] is going to help us tremendously," said Arena. "He's an experienced guy for sure, but I think the skill he brings us is that he's a pretty good communicator on the field."

5. Atiba Harris, M/F, Chivas USA

Now that Carlos Ruiz is no longer in the league, Harris is the attacking player most likely to inflict physical damage on an opponent. Last week, a game-long battle with Columbus' Chad Marshall saw the Crew defender on the business end of several Harris elbows. Yet Harris' physical approach paid off on the scoreboard, as he scored the opening goal in last week's 2-1 win over the Crew.

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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