Bruce Arena's Los Angeles Galaxy, fresh off a 2-1 victory over Chivas USA, are in the tightest of races ahead of the MLS Cup Playoffs: the dash for the Major League Soccer Supporters' Shield.
With a record of 16-6-5 (53 points), the Galaxy lead Real Salt Lake by two points in the overall standings as well as the MLS Western Conference. They take on a Philadelphia Union side that is 7-13-7 (28 points) and have been eliminated from postseason contention.
“We’re moving forward, starting to get some of our players back, but that’s obviously part of the plan in the last month of the season,” Arena said on Sunday. “We’re 27 weeks in and it hasn’t been perfect, but we’ve been in first place for 27 weeks. It’s not going to be easy the next three games.”
When asked regarding the importance of Sunday's victory over the Goats, team captain Landon Donovan stressed the pressure it put on them.
“We had real pressure on us," Donovan said after the match. "[Real] Salt Lake won [2-1 against New England], so we were in second [place]. Winning the Supporters Shield is really important to us. This was a big game for us. It is always going to be difficult against Chivas, whether they have 20 points or they have 50 points. It is always a hard game. We are still happy we won.”
Donovan leads MLS in assists this season with 14.
Even with Philadelphia on the outside looking in, Edson Buddle was aware of the team's major weaknesses of dropping important contests against mediocre sides.
“We have taken some losses from teams that are not so high in the standings," Buddle said on Sunday. "We know in this league, you can lose to the teams that are struggling to get points and fighting for jobs, so [the match against Chivas] was a game we knew we had to win and we weren’t going to take lightly.”
With his league-leading 15th goal of the season, Buddle became the first player in MLS history to score 40 or more goals for two different teams. He had 42 goals in 106 career regular season games with the Columbus Crew and now has 40 goals in 84 regular season games with the Galaxy.
As one of the most diverse scoring threats in the league, 14 different players have scored at least once for Los Angeles.
The return of defender Omar Gonzalez to the lineup will be important to the Galaxy's chances of sweeping the expansion side Union at PPL Park in Chester, Pennsylvania. Watch for another tenacious performance from the G's backline on Thursday.
“The times when they did get behind us in the first half," defender Todd Dunivant said on Sunday regarding their victory over Chivas, "it was midfielders running through and our coordination with Juninho and the guys running through wasn’t quite good enough but A.J. and Omar were fantastic.
"Alan Gordon is a big target up top and they did a good job of managing him, and in then Braun in the second half, but A.J. held his own. We broke up plays and didn’t give up many chances and that’s what it’s all about.”
A solid effort from the back line will take pressure off of goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, who has a 0.85 goals against average, 71 saves made, a 76.3 percent save percentage and a 16-6-4 record.
As for the Phildelphia Union, they are led by Sebastien Le Toux, one of the leading goalscorers and providers in Major League Soccer. Le Toux has 13 goals and 10 assists to his name.
Le Toux also has a number of options he can feed the ball to, namely Danny Mwanga, who has scored seven goals this season Fred, and Jack McInerney (the latter two with three goals scored this year).
Other facilitators to watch in Peter Nowak's attack for the Union include Alejandro Moreno and Roger Torres, both with five assists to their credit. Mwanga and Justin Mapp are also dangerous as set-up men, contributing to the cause with four assists this season.
On defense, the backline—led by Jordan Harvey, Danny Califf and Michael Orozco—will be faced with a monumental task of stopping the likes of Buddle, Donovan and Beckham. Not the easiest of challenges, but if the likes of the Chicago Fire, San Jose Earthquakes and Kansas City Wizards proves testament to it, the possibility of overcoming them hang in the balance.
Goalkeeper Chris Seitz has been hanging tough in spite of a challenging inaugural year for the Union, with a 1.75 GAA, 64 saves, a 59.8 percent save percentage and a 5-11-6 record.
This is a match that may see Landon Donovan rested for the important matches against the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas. However the Supporters Shield implications are too important to overlook, and therefore, expect the Galaxy to come out ready for this one.
Los Angeles Galaxy 2, Philadelphia Union 1
Kickoff is scheduled for 5:00 p.m. PT and will be televised by ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes.