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ASN Playoff Preview

LA vs. San Jose: These Guys Just Don't Like Each Other

Star power, firepower, and a welcome dose of dislike fuel Sunday's Western Conference Semifinal between Los Angeles and San Jose. It's a can't-miss matchup for U.S. soccer fans.
BY Andrew Lewellen Posted
November 04, 2012
4:26 AM
Editor's Note: ASN will preview every MLS playoff match/series. Check out our state-of-the-art Starting XI tool, which lets you set a formation and lineups for the Los Angeles Galaxy and/or San Jose Earthquakes.

INTRO: The MLS Western Conference Semifinals series between the Los Angeles Galaxy and the San Jose Earthquakes may not be the most intriguing of tactical battles, but for drama and excitement the matchup should rank among the best in the league. The series pits the reigning MLS Cup Champions, the Galaxy, against the winners of this year’s Supporters' Shield, the Earthquakes. And the two teams lead MLS in scoring, with San Jose having tallied 72 goals and the Galaxy 59. The in-state playoff battle kicks off on Sunday at 9pm Eastern at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California, with the second leg on Wednesday at 11pm Eastern at Buck Shaw Stadium. Both matches will be televised by ESPN and ESPN Deportes.

The two teams combine to have nine players in the ASN 100, and six of them are attackers. The best known, of course, is L.A.’s Landon Donovan, who owns the MLS record for most playoff goals with 21, and San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski, who last Saturday tied Roy Lassiter’s single-season scoring record with his 27th goal of the year. Beyond those two marquee names the Earthquakes feature the feisty Steven Lenhart and the veteran Alan Gordon. Along with Donovan, the Galaxy have Edson Buddle, who has found a starting position with the team after missing the first three-quarters of the season recovering from knee surgery, and Mike Magee, who scored the game-tying goal in L.A.’s 2-1 victory over Vancouver on Thursday.

HISTORY: In their three matches this season, San Jose won the first two, the teams tied the third, and the two sides combined for 16 goals. But those results don’t belie the true tension of the matches. This season the Galaxy have struggled to consistently find the form that led them to the 2011 MLS Cup title, and their failure to beat their northern rivals has suggested that they may not have what it takes to repeat as MLS Cup Champions.

A few specific incidents this season have added fuel to an already fiery rivalry. The first came at the end of the second meeting between the two teams in July. In injury time, San Jose’s Sam Cronin lay on the pitch, apparently injured. David Beckham, who just that week had been left out of England’s Olympic team, stood waiting to take a throw-in. Then he got sick of waiting. He struck a perfectly placed and paced punt that struck Cronin on the leg. Cronin, suddenly feeling much better, jumped up and protested. Beckham got a yellow card and a two-game suspension. San Jose got the victory.

Prior to the season’s last meeting between the two teams, L.A. Galaxy Head Coach Bruce Arena, when asked if the Galaxy’s first two losses to San Jose bothered him, said: “I don't give two sh*** about the last time that we played San Jose." And following that last match, a 2-2 draw, Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez criticized the Earthquakes' chippy style of play, saying “those guys are a bunch of jokes.”

MATCHUPS: The most intriguing man-to-man match up is Wondolowksi against Gonzalez, the 2011 MLS Defender of the Year. Gonzalez is fighting to earn a call up to the U.S. national team, but in the team’s last meeting, Wondo won the individual battle when he broke free from Gonzalez on a corner kick and scored the game-tying goal. Along with Wondolowski, Gonzalez and the Galaxy defense will need to contain Lenhart and Gordon, either by closing off service to them or winning second balls that drop to their feet. While San Jose’s offensive trio are doing battle with the Galaxy defense, on the other side of the ball Cronin, Ike Opara, and the Earthquakes' midfield and defense will need to control L.A.’s deep attack led by Donovan, Robbie Keane and Beckham.

TACTICS: Through most of the season, the Galaxy often played a sort of 4-4-1-1, with Donovan floating somewhere between the midfield and linking with Keane. But against the Whitecaps on Thursday, with Buddle back and defender A.J. De LaGarza out with an injury, Los Angeles played a 3-4-3, with Donovan, Keane, and Buddle listed as forwards. The Earthquakes usually set up in a straight 4-4-2 with Wondolowski paired with either Gordon or Lenhart. Cronin marshals the center of the midfield, working hard on both sides of the ball to win back possession and begin San Jose’s direct and fast-paced attacks.

The matches between these two teams this season, particularly the second one in July, were often fast-paced affairs with little focus on prolonged possession. Both teams normally field most of their offensive firepower in the middle of the field, which contributes to those direct attacks. But in the Galaxy’s victory against Vancouver, Beckham often assumed a wide position, usually on the right, and throughout the entire first and second half, the team bombarded the Whitecaps penalty box with crosses. It was a cross from Sarvas that set up Mike Magee’s game-tying volley in the 67th minute.

PREDICTION: What’s so compelling about this match-up is that it finally presents the moment for one of these teams to rise to the occasion and officially prove their superiority. Will the Galaxy, who have hovered around the fourth spot in the conference most of the season, finally find their championship form? Will the Earthquakes once and for all prove that their potent offense and league-best record were no flukes? Conventional logic would see San Jose advancing. But on Thursday night against the Whitecaps, the Galaxy proved their championship pedigree, coming from behind to secure a 2-1 victory and earn the match-up with San Jose. That performance shows the Galaxy might officially be back. Expect them to take the series with a couple of 3-2 victories at home and on the road.

READER FEEDBACK: What do you think? How many goals do you hope to see those two teams tally? Will the San Jose continue their march to the MLS Cup Title? Or are the Galaxy back? Let us know your thoughts below.

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