When Don Garber finally assented to allowing the Chivas USA franchise to call Los Angeles its home in 2004, it was a sacrifice. The MLS cares about geographic expansion, and was looking to grow into Canada, the Northwest, and back into Florida. Adding a team into a well-established market, and have that team plant itself at the Home Depot Center was not part of the long-term plan. However, there was an upside. By placing the team in LA, and indeed having the team play and practice at same facility as the L.A Galaxy, the MLS could create an instant rivalry. Every great league has a great derby, and this pre-packaged rivalry seemed ideal.
That benefit will come to full fruition over the next two weekends as the Galaxy and Chivas play a true home-and-home match in the first round of the MLS playoffs. It should be scintillating stuff.
Is this Chivas’ moment? Since their inception, Chivas USA has always been second best to the Galaxy, even when they have been the better team. Chivas gets less press, draws fewer fans and has struggled to carve out an identity. Even when the Galaxy were terrible in 2007 and 2008 and Chivas were a perennial playoff team, the addition of David Beckham to the Galaxy seemed to suck all the air out of the Chivas balloon. However, while smaller in number, the Chivas fans are vocal, passionate, and intimidating. The team, along with their fans, will have a point to prove and an identity to claim against the Galaxy.
Is this Landon Donovan’s moment? Donovan has always been outstanding against Chivas, and as a revived Galaxy enter the playoffs with Donovan wearing the armband, Donovan will want to make a statement. The European press will be here to cover Beckham’s first play-off experience since coming to the MLS, and Donovan will want to demonstrate both to the US media and to the foreign audience that he is the best the US has to offer. It is no secret that during the January transfer window, Donovan may trade in his Galaxy uniform and cleats and take up some European team’s kit and boots. This play-off run is best Donovan’s chance to impress the over-seas observers.
Is this Sacha Kljestan’s moment? Kljestan has been a cipher for many US soccer fans. The 2006 Rookie of the Year has had moments of great promise and stretches were he has seemed to recede into the background. He had a great Olympics in 2008 but has struggled to assert himself for the US National Team. His stats have been respectable (five goals and three assists) but he has been ready to take that “next step” as a player for a couple of years and has not. Kljestan needs a great playoff run to reinstate his place in the US Soccer world.
Expect a defensive battle. In the three Galaxy/Chivas games this season, only two goals were scored, which is not surprising considering how stingy each of these teams are in the back. For the Galaxy, although most of the ink has been spilled about what a revelation rookie Omar Gonzalez has been this season, the real stalwart has been veteran left back Todd Dunivant. Dunivant has not gone forward as much as he has in the past, but he has stayed home and snuffed out just about every threat that has come down his side of the field. At the other end, Zach Thornton has been a monster in goal all season for Chivas. A veteran player who may win the GK of the Year award after last winning it in 1998, Thornton has been a wall in front of goal all season. When Chivas went through a late season swoon this fall, Thornton kept them in games that the rest of the team did not deserve to be in.
Finally, there is Beckham. Throughout his career, Beckham has been like a diamond. Without a little bit of pressure, he is just a lump of coal. For his first two seasons with the Galaxy, he meandered around the field like a man looking for a reason to be there. When his performance was dissected at the beginning of the season by Grant Wahl, Beckham seemed to lose his bearings completely. And then, like he has in the past, he picked himself up and has been brilliant the past two months. He has worked hard on the pitch, integrated himself with his teammates and become the machine in the midfield he was always supposed to be. Now that the Galaxy are in the playoffs, he has a chance to demonstrate his worth to the entire world and England Coach Fabio Capello, and not necessarily in that order.