Chivas players ready to stop playoff rot
Two teams. One stadium. One game. The Chivas USA-Los Angeles Galaxy rivalry will add a new chapter Sunday (7:30 p.m. ET, EPN2, ESPN360.com) when the Home Depot Center neighbors meet in a winner-take-all playoff match that will bring one team closer to an MLS Cup, while sending the other team toward an early vacation.
Which team has the edge in a series that stands tied at 2-2 after the first leg? That depends on who you ask. The Galaxy will be the home team for the second leg, but it's still Home Depot Center, and Chivas USA players don't sound worried. Chivas USA believes it can eliminate the mistakes that cost it a Game 1 victory, while the Galaxy stand confident that rookie Omar Gonzalez will rebound from his shaky opening-leg effort.
While both teams are facing similar pressure, Chivas USA has to be feeling just a bit more. After all, it has been three straight seasons in which the Goats have lost in the first round of the playoffs, including last season's upset by Real Salt Lake. The club has actually never won a playoff series, something the team's players are certainly aware of.
|MLS Cup playoffs|
Houston vs. Seattle
L.A. vs. Chivas USA
"On the way to practice I was thinking about it," said Chivas midfielder Sacha Kljestan. "Is this really going to be my fourth season in a row where we're going to exit from the playoffs in the first round, or am I going to be the difference-maker this year that puts my team into the next round?"
Kljestan feels confident about this year's playoff fortunes, because unlike in years past, this Chivas USA team is as healthy as any before it at this point in the season. The club is missing veteran midfielder Jesse Marsch, but with a deep midfield, and the rest of the team healthy, Chivas USA won't have any excuses for a fourth straight first-round exit.
"I feel like at this point we feel like we're pretty healthy, whereas in previous years we felt like we were missing some decent players heading into the playoffs," Kljestan said. "Now, I feel confident with the team that we have. I don't know any lessons that we've taken away from previous years. "In previous years we were down a goal going into the second game, and this year we're even," Kljestan said. "Now it's just one game winner; winner goes on and loser goes home." Chivas USA head coach Preki doesn't see the club's past first-round failures weighing on the team, particularly given the turnover in personnel over the years. "The thing is, every year we've had a different group," Preki said. "Only a couple of players have played all three years, or even two years, so I'm not sure what the group has learned from the past [losses]. "This is the time of the year when you can't afford to make too many mistakes, and we've made two already. We need to make sure that we don't give any more things away."
The same can be said for the Galaxy, which gift-wrapped Chivas USA's second goal, and could be accused of slacking off on Maicon's opening goal in the Game 1 draw. Those mistakes, which came during slow starts in each half of Game 1, spoiled an otherwise solid performance from the Galaxy. "It's a process that we want to learn from," said Galaxy defender Gregg Berhalter. "As a team we need to get in good shape and continue to be that team that people don't like to play, that we're difficult to play with, aggressive and we get after the opponent.
"We strayed from that for a brief period in the game, not all game, but a brief period and we paid for it."
Galaxy rookie defender Omar Gonzalez endured one of the worst games of his young career last week, playing a part in both of Chivas USA's goals, but while he looked shaky in the opening leg, the Galaxy's veterans still sound extremely confident in a player regarded as the leading candidate to win MLS Rookie of the Year.
"We're not a team that gives up on a player after a mistake, and we're not a team that points fingers," Berhalter said. "Things like that happen, and what we try to do is get our team to focus on what's next.
"[Omar] has proven all year that he can get the job done, so there's no reason to think that he wouldn't in this game."
"I don't think he had that bad of a bad game," Galaxy goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts said of Gonzalez. "When you play defense or goalkeeper your mistakes get highlighted. That's the only problem, but he's a tough kid and he'll bounce back."
If the Galaxy defense is to bounce back, it will need to deal better with the speedy and dangerous Maykel Galindo, who wreaked havoc after coming in as a halftime substitute. After spending a good portion of the 2009 season regaining his form after a 2008 ravaged by injuries, Galindo has in recent weeks shown flashes of the player who scored 12 goals in 2007. After his Game 1 performance, he is all but assured of a larger role in Sunday's Game 2.
"Obviously he came in and I thought he had a good first 15-20 minutes, and then I thought in the last 15-20 minutes he could have given us more," Preki said of Galindo. "The good thing is that we saw some signs of the old Maykel Galindo."
"Unfortunately, he came in and we were, for want of a better word, we were a bit confused," Ricketts said of the Galaxy's struggles with handling Galindo in Game 1. "As the game wore on, we gradually got to grips with him and played better against him, so hopefully on Sunday we'll know what he's all about and we'll play better against him."
One interesting aspect of Game Two will be how the matchup is affected by the change from a Chivas USA home game to a Galaxy home game. The stands will have considerably more Galaxy fans, which should provide a boost for Los Angeles, but that difference is probably one that won't bother Chivas USA too much.
"I heard some of the Galaxy guys saying that it's going to be a whole home crowd for them and a completely different game," Kljestan said. "I kind of disagree with that. I feel like when we host the games, or when they host the games, it feels pretty much exactly the same to me so I'm pretty confident that we're going to have some good support from our fans.
"I always feel comfortable playing at the Home Depot Center, whether we're the home team or the away team, so I don't think it makes much difference to me."
If both teams can cut out mistakes, the match is likely to boil down to the performances of the star players for each team. David Beckham and Landon Donovan didn't exactly put in dominant performances in Game 1 (though Donovan did score a crucial goal), but neither did Sacha Kljestan or Zach Thornton for Chivas USA.
The match could boil down to which stars step up, and one matchup that could offer even more intrigue is the one in goal, where Thornton, the recent recipient of the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award earlier this week, will be facing Ricketts, his biggest rival for the award. While he won't go as far as to say he is motivated by losing out on the goalkeeper honor, Ricketts sounds like a player focused on a more important honor.
"I didn't come to win individual awards. I came to win a team award, which is MLS Cup," Ricketts said. "That's my focus. All congratulations to Zach, but my focus is still MLS Cup.
"He can take the goalkeeper of the year award. I'll walk away with the playoff win on Sunday."
Houston versus Seattle
The Houston Dynamo didn't score any goals in its Game 1 draw against the Seattle Sounders, but it still heads into Sunday's Game Two of its Western Conference playoff series with some momentum.
How so? Seattle created several chances but came away empty-handed, and the Dynamo faced the intense pressure of the packed house at Qwest Field and responded with a valuable 0-0 draw that sets up a Game 2 in Robertson Stadium that the Dynamo will have to feel confident heading into.
Seattle isn't likely to feel overwhelmed in what is expected to be a sold-out Robertson Stadium. The Sounders outplayed the Dynamo in a 1-1 tie in Houston in August and knows it could have easily won Game 1 if not for the chances it missed in a game in which the offense wasn't exactly firing on all cylinders.
Sunday's match, and the series, could hinge on the battle between Sounders striker Fredy Montero and Houston central defender Geoff Cameron. Montero has terrorized defenders all season, but Cameron's combination of size, speed and athleticism produced a very impressive effort in containing Montero in Game 1. Montero still found a moment of brilliance on one perfect turn and missed shot, but he was marked out of the match in a way he rarely has been this season. If Cameron can shackle Montero a second time, the Dynamo will stand a good chance of winning Sunday's match.
Seattle's chances for an upset could hinge on Freddie Ljungberg's ability to unlock a Houston defense that showed vulnerability at times in Game 1. Dynamo midfielder Ricardo Clark was clearly hobbled by a knee injury in Game 1, and Ljungberg took advantage of that in the first half, but the Sounders couldn't make more of that advantage before Clark eventually settled in and finished out the game in strong fashion. Ljungberg is a safe bet to create more chances Sunday, but it will be up to his teammates to convert if the Sounders are going to advance to the Western Conference final.
One thing the Dynamo will need to do is avoid any flashbacks of last year's first-round playoff loss to the New York Red Bulls, a loss that saw Houston squander countless chances as it watched the Red Bulls finish in clinical fashion on their way to a 3-0 victory. The Dynamo had to learn a lesson from that painful defeat, and the lesson was that you cannot afford to miss chances in the playoffs. Houston standouts Brian Ching, Stuart Holden and Brad Davis must create chances (as they did in Game 1), but must put them away or risk having the Sounders steal the momentum, and ultimately the series.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.