The LA Galaxy are heavy favorites to take down the Vancouver Whitecaps in the Western Conference Wild Card round and book their spot in the conference semifinals against the San Jose Earthquakes and for good reason. Whereas the Whitecaps slumped in the final months, winning just one of their last 10, the Galaxy were in their best form of the season. There is also that whole defending champions and experience thing, too.
The MLS Cup Playoffs have provided their fair share of shocking upsets before, though, so if history is any indicator, the Galaxy won't have a cakewalk. After all, the Colorado Rapids have a MLS Cup.
Here are three keys to the game:
1) Who is healthy, and can stay healthy for LA - It appears as if the Galaxy are beginning to get fit, with David Beckham and Landon Donovan both playing in the regular season finale, leaving A.J. DeLaGarza as the only first choice player still on the sidelines, but how fit are they? Can either player go 90 minutes?
Beckham especially is already akin to a statue, almost rooted to place in the center of the pitch as he sprays the ball around. That puts a lot of weight on Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas, as well as the back line to cover for him. If he lacks any more mobility because of injury, his teammates may not be able to compensate and Vancouver could find holes.
As important, if the Galaxy want to look ahead to a MLS Cup run and not just a lone playoff win, is who can stay fit and bounce back. MLS's scheduling has the winner of the Wild Card match playing San Jose on Sunday, with the second leg on Wednesday in San Jose. That's a quick round (and some asinine scheduling considering that Seattle and Salt Lake open their conference semifinal on Friday then don't play their second leg until Thursday). The Galaxy aren't just dealing with injuries and fitness for the Wild Card match, but also have to worry about who they can piece together going forward, if they win.
2) Vancouver's ability to exploit the Galaxy's left - Because Beckham is not particularly active defensively and at 37 years old doesn't have the wheels to play on the wing, Sarvas is asked to pinch in and help centrally in possession, but more importantly defensively. As a result, Todd Dunivant spends a lot of team almost on an island, defending the left flank all by himself.
The Whitecaps have players who can cause havoc on their right. In fact, that may be where they are best on the pitch. Dane Richards, as maddening as his wayward crosses can be, can leave a defender in his dust with his amazing pace and Lee Young-Pyo is one of the league's better right backs going forward. Toss in Gershon Koffie, who isn't afraid to push forward and exploit any space between the left back and the left center back, and you have a team that can do some damage on their right.
Dunivant usually carries a lot of defensive responsibility, just because of the way that LA compensates for Beckham, but against the Whitecaps he will be facing more pressure than usual. Vancouver doesn't have a whole lot to offer in the attack, failing to score in five of their last seven matches, so they're going to have to tear up the left side of the Galaxy or it will be a quiet night for the visitors.
3) Is Tommy Meyer up to the task? - The Galaxy have arguably the best back line in MLS when healthy and last season proved it, as the defense made its case for the best the league has ever seen. With Dunivant, DeLaGarza, Omar Gonzalez and Sean Franklin, LA is akin to a brick wall, but they haven't had that four for big chunks of the season. Gonzalez missed the first half of the season, Dunivant missed a string of matches and just when it looked like the four were back together and ready to go, DeLaGarza got hurt.
The diminutive, but outstanding DeLaGarza will not be available for the Galaxy versus the Whitecaps, forcing Tommy Meyer into the team and while promising, nobody in LA wanted to see Meyer in the playoffs. The rookie started just seven games this season and has had the hiccups you would expect from a young player.
The Whitecaps are going to throw Darren Mattocks at Meyer on Thursday night, a major test for the rookie because of Mattocks' pace. Meyer has been effective in the air and has shown the ability to step up and cut out passes pretty well, he he still struggles to hold the line and has been responsible for keeping a man onside a few times. If he does that against the Whitecaps and lets Mattocks, or even Richards on the wing stay onside, nobody is catching them and Josh Saunders will be hung out to dry.