Galaxy keeping an eye on the standings as they head down the stretch
They benefited the past two years, when they beat Houston in the final, from playing MLS Cup on home ground, but they'll need to maneuver past a thicket of teams – in both conferences – to have that opportunity again should they make it so far.
The races in both conferences are extremely tight – nine points separate the top eight clubs in the West, and it's 10 points from first to eighth in the East – and that means opportunity to surge forward or danger of falling back for all the teams in the mix.
“It's pretty crazy, and, really, in the whole league,” Donovan told reporters on Thursday as the fourth-place Galaxy (11-9-4) began preparations for the Western Conference showdown with fifth-place Vancouver (10-8-6) on Saturday night in British Columbia (6 pm PT, TWCS). “Because at the end of the day, teams that get to the final, if you want the game at home, there might be a point or two separating you from the other teams. Not only do you want to get in the playoffs and hopefully win the West, but you want to keep an eye on the East, too, and see if you can pass all those teams.”
The Galaxy easily won the Supporters' Shield in 2011, then sprinted through to the MLS Cup title. Last year, LA finished fourth in the West and hosted the final once again only because Houston, the No. 5 team in the East, survived the other bracket.
This year could just as tough. LA are five points in back of Supporters' Shield leaders Real Salt Lake, with two games in hand, but they're just four points ahead of eighth-placed San Jose. The top four teams in the Eastern Conference are a point or two better.
The Galaxy have conceded a dozen points in end-of-game collapses, enough to give them a substantial lead in the overall standings, and nobody else has been able to pull away either. Donovan believes tight playoff races could become the norm in MLS.
“There's more money to be spent in the game overall, so teams are spending more money,” he said. “The league is more and more legitimate all the time. People are being hired that are good at making these decisions, good at bringing in good players.
"Coaching is getting better, the players are getting better, American players are getting better, the players that are brought in are getting better, so it's no longer where a guy with [Galaxy coach/GM] Bruce [Arena]'s experience and savvy can sort of dominate in that way. There's other coaches that are real good now, and GMs who are making good decisions.”
LA have 10 games remaining, six at the StubHub Center and all but two against Western foes, and a good deal of belief, especially after their last-to-champ run over the final five months last season.
“When you factor in games in hand, it's a virtual tie among a lot of teams,” defender Todd Dunivant noted. “Fortunately, eight of our 10 games are against conference opponents. You can make up points. And then, obviously, other teams are playing a lot of conference teams.
“There will be opportunities. It's really on us whether we take them or not.”