Match Preview: Galaxy ready to take on MLS-leading San Jose in California Clasico

CARSON, Calif.— The last time LA and San Jose met, the Earthquakes tallied three unanswered goals in the final 15 minutes to make the Galaxy another victim of their late game heroics.

WHAT HAPPENED LAST TIME: San Jose rally from 2-goal deficit

Those kinds of comebacks have become standard procedure for a San Jose team that has used a “never say die” mantra and late game goals to surpass its 2011 win total and vault itself into first place in the Western Conference. Unlike the first meeting, however, LA enters this Saturday’s match (7 p.m., ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, lagalaxy.com/gamedaylive) as one of the hottest teams in MLS.

While the Earthquakes have been one of the league’s top teams consistently throughout the first half of the season, LA come into the game on a run of form that has taken them from the Western Conference’s cellar to the heart of the playoff picture in a week. The Galaxy came out of the three-week break staring at a usually daunting stretch of three games in seven days. The defending MLS Cup champions, however, not only broke their seven game winless streak, but won all three games, recording nine points in seven days and jumping to fifth in the Western Conference standings.

READ: LA brimming with confidence, regained "winning mentality"

“Just playing better, as simple as that,” Galaxy Head Coach Bruce Arena said about his team’s form after training on Thursday. “You can make these things all complicated, but at the end of the day it’s about how you’re playing. If you’re playing well at both ends of the field, you’re playing better and that’s what we’re doing.”

LA now face an upstart San Jose team that has gone from missing the playoffs in 2011 to leading MLS in points, goals and goal differential in 2012.

“They’ve kind of got an identity of being an underdog type team. Now that they’re in first it will be interesting to see how that changes things,” Galaxy defender Todd Dunivant said. “They’re a team that’s always kind of felt the underdog. I remember when I was with San Jose, LA was always the big-market team … It’s kind of the same story and same identity that they have now. They feel like they are the smaller market team and always have that underdog role and they thrive on it. And [San Jose Head Coach] Frank [Yallop] thrives on it, and Frank does a good job of enabling his players to be free and go out and make plays.”

READ: San Jose match a homecoming for Galaxy's Dunivant

Galaxy captain Landon Donovan, who along with Dunivant, played for Yallop in both San Jose and LA, mentioned the manager’s influence on the Earthquakes surge.

“All his teams are very similar in that they play for him very hard and those guys, I know, would run through a wall for that guy. That’s how his teams always are, that’s the kind of person he is and you want to do that for him,” Donovan said. “They’re a good team, they’re difficult to break down and offensively they’re a handful to deal with.”

Arena said that San Jose’s knack for coming back was not something the Galaxy would focus on or worry about.

“If you think that way, it means you’re thinking pretty good anyway, that means you’re thinking that you’re ahead,” Arena said. “That’s what we want to do, we want to be ahead. And if San Jose attempts their heroics that’s great as well, but that means we’re going to be ahead going into the closing minutes of the game so that’s fine with me.”

Donovan, who did not play in the first meeting because of international duty, echoed Arena’s point that worrying about a San Jose comeback would be a welcomed problem.

“We’d love to be up in the game, we’d love to have a lead, if that does happen we know that it’s not over and it’s going to be a tough game, we know that,” Donovan said.

“It’s dangerous when you have a team like that because you can never relax and you have to make sure that you play for 90 minutes and that’s what it’s going to take Saturday,” the captain added.

In addition to Donovan’s return, this edition of the rivalry will include both LA’s Robbie Keane and San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski who also missed the first match for international duty.

San Jose’s league-leading offense comes from its three proficient forwards, Wondolowski, Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon, who account for more than two thirds of the team’s 31 goals. Wondolowski leads MLS with 13 goals, including six game winners, while both Gordon and Lenhart have five goals each on the season.

“Obviously those are two of the more physical players in the league,” Dunivant said of Lenhart and Gordon. “Guys that are going to bump you and bruise you and look to create a lot of contact, that’s their game and they’ve been successful at it.

“With their team, especially on this field being a smaller field, they’re going to be sending a lot of crosses into those guys and they’re brave and they’re getting on the end of things. We have to a good job of staying with them and putting bodies on them and making sure they don’t get free headers.”

LA will try to keep their offense humming after back-to-back three goal performances against Real Salt Lake and Vancouver Whitecaps FC. The Galaxy scored three times in the first half against Vancouver, getting goals from three of its leading scorers: Mike Magee, Keane and Donovan.

“I think we all felt really good about how we played in the first and for little stretches in the second half and we want to build on that for Saturday,” Donovan said about the game against Vancouver.

Because of the scope and draw of the original California rivalry, the game is being played at Stanford Stadium, Stanford University’s 50,000-seat football stadium, in Palo Alto, Calif., where a capacity crowd of more than 50,000 awaits the club.

“It’s going to be fun. I’ve got a lot of friends and family still there,” said Dunivant, who played his college soccer at Stanford. “It’ll be a good atmosphere and 50,000 people is going to be great for the league and for the game.”