TORONTO – It may not be life-or-death, but it’s not too far removed.
The way the calendar worked out, the LA Galaxy’s first competitive match of 2012 will be of the utmost significance. They face Toronto FC in the first of their two-leg CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal series at Rogers Centre on Wednesday (8 pm ET/ 5pm PT, Fox Soccer, concacaf.com, lagalaxy.com/gamedaylive).
“It’s very important, no question about it,” Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena told reporters on Sunday. “How else can you describe it? Do the math – there are two games, the result in game one is a big factor as you approach Game 2.”
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The Galaxy’s last Champions League match was a win-or-else predicament, and they did well to survive, beating Motagua of Honduras by 1-0 in Central America to win Group A and reach this stage. Their other two road contests – at Morelia and Alajuelense – also posed their own challenges, whether it was a hostile environment, a strong opposing team, dodgy surfaces or a combination of the three.
Toronto supporters likely won’t hurl obscenity-laced tirades at Galaxy players from mere feet away, but there will be better than 45,000 red clad fans on hand. And the Canadian side will pose some challenges as well.
“The biggest issues we have is one, their team and two, getting acclimated to these conditions – playing on turf, playing on a narrow surface,” Arena said. “Then going to the game Wednesday with a good understanding of the things we need to do to win the game.”
TFC did not reach the MLS Cup Playoffs a year ago, but improved as the season went on. The club seemed destined for, at best, a third-place finish in their CCL group but prevailed over FC Dallas and Tauro FC to nab a spot in the quarterfinals.
Unlike other offseasons, Toronto enjoyed a bit of stability and bring back a side full of players who are familiar with one another.
“They’re a year older which helps everybody,” Arena said. “Same combination of players up top, pretty much the same back line. The biggest addition is the kid [Luis] Silva from [UC] Santa Barbara. He's been in an attacking midfield role and, from what we hear, he’s had a good preseason.”
To try and gauge how the match may go, it might seem reasonable to look at how preseason went for each respective side. However, that approach won’t go far.
“Anyone that reads anything into preseason is misguided,” Arena said, putting an end to that line of speculation.
The team the Galaxy will send out onto the Rogers Centre field will, for instance, likely not have played together at all in the preseason – or ever for that matter, if Robbie Keane and Edson Buddle start together up top.
Instead of trying to build something, Arena said the preseason approach was simple.
“For us, it was about looking at players and finalizing our roster, which we did over the weekend," he said. "This preseason, we did not worry ourselves silly about the results as much as we wanted to give players the minutes they needed. We wanted to evaluate players who were trying to earn spots on the roster,” he said. “That’s the truth of that.”
Because the Galaxy have much of the same squad back from the side that won the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup a year ago, the team didn't need much work in getting familiar with one another.
“It’s important to have that core back together again,” Arena said. “They have enough experience that they should be able to go into Toronto and deal with the conditions and the challenge.”
Luis Bueno covers the LA Galaxy for MLSsoccer.com and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org