CARSON, Calif. – Very little separated the LA Galaxy and the San Jose Earthquakes during their three head-to-head meetings in 2012. Two of those contests ended with one-goal San Jose victories and the most recent meeting, at Buck Shaw Stadium less than two weeks ago, ended deadlocked 2-2. In the coming week, LA will get another shot at San Jose, this time with 180 minutes or more to determine the outcome.
The winner after the two-leg Western Conference Semifinal will advance to face either Seattle Sounders FC or Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference Championship.
“It’s an exciting series. I think it’ll be great for the fans, great for the league,” Galaxy defender Todd Dunivant said. “Obviously we’ve had three pretty intense games against them so we’re expecting the intensity to be notched up another couple levels and it’s going to be a battle no doubt about it.”
While the two teams were nearly even on the field, in the standings they finished separated by 12 points. San Jose ran away with the conference’s regular season crown, finishing with 66 points from a 19-6-9 record. As San Jose was blazing their way to the Supporters’ Shield and No. 1 playoff seed, the Galaxy had to recover from a slow start to make the field as the fourth seed.
"We know how they play,” said Marcelo Sarvas of his club’s Conference Semifinal opponent. “It's long balls, physical, it's a fight. We just have to [play] our game, keep the ball on the ground, pass and move, and it will be fine."
"It's not a revenge … We know that we can beat them, so just be alert [for] 90 minutes and we'll be fine."
For the first time since 2005, when they upset the Earthquakes, the Galaxy will host the first leg of a two-leg, aggregate goal series. In recent playoff runs LA has always been the higher-ranked team and subsequently hosted the second match of each series.
When asked if it was a disadvantage starting at home for the first time in years, Dunivant responded, “I guess technically it should be, but in reality it’s not.”
Dunivant pointed to a recent example of the scant home field advantage in two-match rounds: last season’s Western Conference Semifinal between Seattle and Salt Lake. Seattle may have had the home field advantage, but Salt Lake used the opening home game to its own advantage, winning 3-0 and building a lead that Seattle could not overcome in the return leg.
“A lot of times the only real advantage to having the second leg at home is knowing what you need to do and having that overtime and penalties, but again, it’s not a huge advantage,” Dunivant said. “It’s two games and you have 180 minutes to decide who is the better team and who is advancing.”
A Knockout Round victory on Thursday earned LA the right to another shot at San Jose, who is looking to pull off the same feat as the 2011 Galaxy: a Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup double.
“They have the Supporters’ Shield so they’re pushing for it, but we’re the defending MLS Cup champions and we have a lot of pride with that. There’s no doubt that we want to see ourselves back in that position again,” Dunivant said. “Last night was the first step in that and now that we have that out of the way, we really have to turn around quickly to refocus for San Jose.”
On Thursday night LA dispatched Vancouver Whitecaps FC for the third time in 2012; on Sunday they will hope that San Jose cannot do the same to them. In both games that the Galaxy lost they gave up two-goal leads to San Jose’s physical attacking force spearheaded by Chris Wondolowski, Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart.
The Earthquakes scored 72 goals in the regular season, far and away the most in the league with LA’s ranking second with 13 fewer tallies. Wondolowski, the favorite to win the MLS MVP award, led the way, tying the MLS single-season record with 27 goals – 11 of which were game-winners. Gordon, who won an MLS Cup with the Galaxy in 2005 added a career-best 13 goals while Lenhart, a Galaxy menace throughout his career added 10 goals, with both scoring frequently in pressure situations.
Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena said that the key to playing against San Jose’s physical, direct attack is “winning the first ball and being in position for the second. It’s not rocket science; it’s just being in good spots and having the desire to win those balls.”
Arena said that he expected there to be some changes to the Galaxy lineup compared to the squad that faced Vancouver and that there was a “good chance” defender Sean Franklin will be re-inserted into the starting lineup after missing Thursday’s game with tightness in his left hamstring. He is listed as Questionable on the club’s injury report, as is midfielder Christian Wilhelmsson, who also missed Thursday’s win with tightness in his right quad.
Following Sunday’s first leg, which kicks off at 6 p.m., the two teams will travel north for the second match on Wednesday at 8 p.m. at San Jose’s Buck Shaw Stadium with that game being shown live on ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes.
“There’s obviously a lot of history with these two clubs and really only this year has it been rekindled,” said Dunivant who started his career in San Jose and has spent eight of his 12 MLS season between the two California clubs. “I think [the rivalry’s] back in full swing.”