CARSON, Calif. -- For the first four years of the SuperClasico rivalry between the Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA, the hype sometimes seemed to overshadow the results on the field. After all, despite practicing just a few hundred yards from each other, the teams were often miles apart in the standings.
But with their Western Conference semifinal series approaching, that has suddenly all changed.
The Galaxy and Chivas will square off Sunday afternoon (5 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com) in the first leg of their two-game aggregate-goals series at the teams' shared stadium, the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. The return leg will be played a week later on the same field. The winner books a trip to the Western Conference finals, while the loser heads into the offseason knowing it has lost more than just L.A.'s soccer bragging rights.
The three regular-season games between the two teams this year were all close: a pair of 1-0 wins for the Galaxy and a scoreless draw. The play was scrappy and physical, a sign of the heightened intensity of the rivalry during a season in which the first-place Galaxy finished just three points ahead of fourth-place Chivas.
|MLS Cup playoffs
L.A. vs. Chivas USA
5 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com
RSL vs. Columbus
8 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com
Chivas vs. L.A.
7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com
"They're great games," said Galaxy captain Landon Donovan of the SuperClasico contests. "Every year they seem to be the most exciting and the most intense games we play, and now with the added element of the playoffs it's going to be even more so. I think everyone's going to enjoy it, and hopefully we enjoy it a little more than they do."
For Chivas, a young organization often overshadowed by the Galaxy and its high-profile stars like Donovan and David Beckham, the series provides a chance to put aside this season's SuperClasico defeats. Players and coaches alike have taken to growing playoff beards and are preparing for what figures to be an intense semifinal series.
"Every Clasico is pretty physical, pretty heated," Chivas defender Jonathan Bornstein said. "A lot of emotions go through the games, and you've just got to expect a real battle and go into it with that mentality."
If the games are low-scoring, as both teams are anticipating, the Galaxy may have a psychological edge. The team won six games by 1-0 scores this year, including the two victories over Chivas.
"We feel very comfortable that we can win 1-0 games," Galaxy midfielder Chris Klein said. "And I think in the first game especially we want to be tight defensively and not give them much and look to get something going the other way."
Chivas will likely adopt a similar approach, trying to absorb pressure and then making the most of every opportunity. Having lost in the first round of the playoffs the past three years, the team is well aware that one goal can decide a postseason series.
"That's the kind of stuff you have to deal with in the playoffs. One mistake could lose a game and the series," goalkeeper Zach Thornton said. "So obviously you want to keep it tight, keep it at zeroes as long as possible, and then hopefully you can take your chances well and get your goal."
Whether Chivas can get that goal will be the big question of the series. In all three games against the Galaxy this season the Goats had stretches in which they dominated possession and generated good chances, but a combination of poor finishing and strong Galaxy goalkeeping kept them off the board.
For Chivas, the key to finally ending the Galaxy's shutout streak may be enigmatic midfielder Sacha Kljestan. The 24-year-old was the team's MVP in 2008 and has shown flashes of excellence with both Chivas and the U.S. national team. But his inconsistent performance this season has been a major factor in Chivas' goal-scoring woes. In 2009, the Goats became the first team in MLS history not to score at least three goals in a single game.
Sunday's game also marks the first MLS playoff appearance for Galaxy star Beckham. Since his arrival in Los Angeles in 2007, the Galaxy have struggled on the field, falling all the way to the bottom of the standings in a chaotic 2008 campaign. But the team's dramatic turnaround this season, generally credited to the arrival of coach Bruce Arena, has given Beckham a shot at his first trophy since coming to America.
"It's nice to be in this position because I personally haven't been in this position and many of the players haven't in the last three or four years," Beckham said. "I think we've got a team now that deserves to be here, because I think the other seasons we nearly made it but we didn't deserve to be in the playoffs, and this year we do. So the hard work's been paying off."
In the end, both Chivas and the Galaxy acknowledge that the result of the first playoff SuperClasico will ultimately come down to which team rises to the occasion and gives the most complete effort.
"We're not going to decide the game in the first five minutes, the first 10," Chivas midfielder Paulo Nagamura said. "We've got to be intelligent, we've got to be patient, and whatever we have to do to stay in the series we're going to do."
"We all know each other in the league, so there's no secrets," Arena said. "I think in all these playoff series it's simply about getting on the field and playing your best for 90 minutes. The team that makes the most of their opportunities is probably the team that's going to come out on top."
Andy Firchau is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.