2012 MLS Playoffs: What to Watch for in Galaxy vs. Earthquakes

Kevin LeeCorrespondent INovember 4, 2012

2012 MLS Playoffs: What to Watch for in Galaxy vs. Earthquakes

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    The Los Angeles Galaxy will meet the San Jose Earthquakes at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California for the first leg of the Western Conference Semifinal matchup.

    Coming off a nerve-racking 2-1 comeback win against Vancouver Whitecaps FC in the knockout round of the playoffs, the Galaxy look to defend their title and spoil the Earthquakes' impressive season.

    This will be San Jose's first playoff match since they qualified as the No. 1 seed in the West. After winning the Supporters' Shield (most points in the MLS regular season), the 'Quakes hope to carry over their dominance over L.A. this season into the playoffs.

    The Galaxy are coming into this match winning seven of their last eight home games in MLS. But they haven't had much success against the Earthquakes this season. 

    They most recently tied the 'Quakes 2-2 in San Jose without the likes of David Beckham and Landon Donovan. San Jose has been able to pull off some late game heroics and beat L.A. twice. Once they were down 2-0 and went on to win 3-2. Another time the Galaxy had a 3-1 lead, which was squandered as the 'Quakes won 4-3.

    It doesn't get much better than this in terms of playoff matchups. The Earthquakes and Galaxy are bitter rivals, and it definitely shows on the field. Be sure to tune in as this series will likely be one of the most entertaining and electrifying of this year's postseason.

    Here are a few storylines to watch for in the crucial first leg of the series.

Galaxy Starting XI

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    Los Angeles Galaxy coach Bruce Arena will have to make some difficult lineup decisions for this crucial match.

    The major change that Arena has made in the past few games is pairing Edson Buddle with Robbie Keane up top. Buddle is a large forward who's able to hold up the ball, but having Landon Donovan up there with Keane has produced great results for L.A. throughout the season.

    In addition, Buddle hasn't been in scoring form as of late. It's true that he is usually used as a sub, but he really should be scoring more. In his last eight appearances for the Galaxy, he's scored once. That one goal did come against the Earthquakes though.

    The rest of the starting XI for the Galaxy really depends on who's ready to go. Injuries have started popping up for L.A., which may greatly impact the outcome of this series.

Galaxy Injuries

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    It was quite apparent in the 2-1 win against the Whitecaps that starting right-back Sean Franklin plays a huge role on defense for the Galaxy.

    The goal Vancouver scored in the third minute was a direct result of Hector Jimenez filling in for the injured Franklin. Jimenez is naturally a midfielder, so it's understandable that he would make a few mistakes. In the second half, Bruce Arena subbed in Marcelo Sarvas, another midfielder, to take over for Jimenez.

    Franklin is listed as questionable for this first leg,

    Another key player that has an injury is Swedish midfielder Christian Wilhelmsson. He was not even available on the bench during the game against Vancouver, but the Galaxy are hopeful he will be able to play against San Jose. If he is, I think we'll see him come on as a sub, rather than starter.

    Wilhelmsson is also listed as questionable.

    Juninho picked up a knock during the Vancouver game, but is not listed on the injury report for the Galaxy. He did limp off the field, and losing him will hurt L.A. a lot. Juninho is a long-range threat but also is a great defensive midfielder.

San Jose's Three Forwards

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    San Jose's three forwards, Chris Wondolowski, Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon, are some of the most dangerous in all of MLS.

    Wondolowski is the league's leading goalscorer and tied the record for most goals score in the regular season. Lenhart is a physical forward who loves to manhandle defenders. Alan Gordon usually comes off the bench for the Earthquakes, and he's the type of player who seems to always score goals for the 'Quakes in the last few minutes of a game.

    However, Gordon does have a right ankle sprain and is questionable for this first leg of the series.

    The 'Quakes' high-powered offense scored 72 goals in the regular season. L.A. came in second with 59 goals. This just goes to show that the Galaxy defense really needs to be on top of their game and prevent the match from becoming a shootout.

Exploiting the Galaxy Defense

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    The Earthquakes' attack will look to take advantage of the Galaxy defense since so many injuries have come up.

    In addition to right-back Sean Franklin possibly not starting, rookie Tommy Meyer will once again fill in for A.J. DeLaGarza in central defense.

    Meyer has done well for a rookie, but there's no doubt the likes of Lenhart and Wondolowski will target him, rather than veteran defender Omar Gonzalez.

    It will be interesting to see whether or not the Earthquakes will opt to use a 4-3-3 formation so they can utilize all three of their forwards. This will surely give the Galaxy defense something to worry about.

Omar Gonzalez vs. Steven Lenhart

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    Steven Lenhart is known as one of the most physical forwards in MLS. But he is also known as a very dirty player.

    He will surely be try to take on Omar Gonzalez after what the defender said after their last meeting. Gonzalez conceded a foul on Steven Lenhart, which resulted in a free kick goal for the Earthquakes. This is what Gonzalez had to say after the game.

    It all starts when the ball's on the other side of the field, and you're just running and all of a sudden you get blindsided. You just get checked by Lenhart or something. It's just dumb [expletive] like that happens every time, and that's not the way the game should be played. It's embarrassing.

    Lenhart then fired back at Gonzalez. He told a reporter: 

    I feel like you’re assuming [Gonzalez] is really dominant. I feel like you’re wanting me to assume these things or something. I’m not comfortable assuming these things.

    The trash talk continued with Galaxy midfielder Marcelo Sarvas chiming in.

    The ball is in the defense, it's long ball direct to the forwards and fight for the second ball. This is constant. Ninety minutes they play like that. It's nothing beautiful to see. It's some kind of boring football, my opinion, but it is the way they are leading the league, so we have to respect this and be ready for it.

    It's pretty apparent these teams hate each other. It's up to the referee to take control of the game.

Referee Ricardo Salazar

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    Ricardo Salazar will be officiating this match with his crew.

    Salazar will be in for a long match since there's no doubt these two teams will go at each other whenever possible.

    I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that we'll see at least four or five yellow cards given and maybe even a red.

    The mind games have already begun, though.

    Galaxy defender Todd Dunivant called him "probably the best referee in the league."

    Captain Landon Donovan had this to say about Salazar's officiating.

    Fortunately, we have a great referee doing this game. One who has been in a lot of these games, and knows what kind of game that San Jose plays. I have no question that he’s going to take care of us.

    I think Ricardo has been great all year and I think he’s going to do a great job. He knows, trust me, he’s watched enough games and done enough San Jose games where he knows the types of things that they tend to get away with.

L.A.'s Big Three

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    The Galaxy's three Designated Players, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and David Beckham, all need to do their jobs and lead the team against a tough San Jose team.

    This may be their last year together. Landon Donovan is pondering retirement, and even if he doesn't retire, there have been rumors that he's looking for a move to Everton FC in Europe.

    Beckham is once again stirring things up and also implied considering retirement. On what he's up to next, he said,

    Who knows? I'm going to enjoy being in the playoffs again this season and then we'll see … how this body feels.

    Robbie Keane has had a great season so far and really picked it up after his return from the Euros. He earned team MVP honors this season and also won the team's Golden Boot. 

    In the last game against Vancouver, Keane's work rate was phenomenal, and he really deserved a goal. He'll surely look to make a mark on this match.

    There's no doubt that the Galaxy's three stars are what keeps this team going. They'll need to turn in great performances against the Earthquakes to get past this tough matchup. Will it be a trademark Beckham free kick? Or will it be a Donovan and Keane pairing up top that breaks down the Quakes defense?

    Maybe the DPs don't need to do the scoring and leave it up to the other Galaxy players. Mike Magee has been amazing for the Galaxy in the postseason. You may also remember his appearance in goal against the Earthquakes last season.

    Whoever scores the goals, you can bet that Donovan, Beckham, and Keane will all have an impact in this crucial Conference Semifinal match.