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Galaxy faces big test in third meeting against FC Dallas

L.A. beat FC Dallas twice before, but it won't mean anything in Western Conference final.

November 13, 2010|By Grahame L. Jones

David Beckham, sporting a stocking cap and scratching his playoff beard, did not consider the question for long.

Since the Galaxy had the best record in Major League Soccer in 2010, shouldn't it be the league champion without all the fuss and bother of playoff games?

"Yeah, it should," Beckham replied, "but things are done obviously a little bit different" in the U.S.

"It's exciting for the fans. It's exciting for the players. It's something that obviously I've never done before with other teams in other leagues, but I enjoy it. These are the games you're meant to enjoy."

All the same, if finishing on top of the heap after a 30-game MLS season results in nothing more than having to beat some of those same teams all over again in the playoffs, what is the point?

The Galaxy, for instance, defeated FC Dallas twice in 2010, 1-0 in Texas in May and 2-1 in California in October, but its title hopes could fly out the window in one play on Sunday when the teams square off at 6 p.m. in the Western Conference final at the Home Depot Center.

The winner will advance to the MLS Cup in Toronto on Nov. 21 to play the Colorado Rapids, who defeated the San Jose Earthquakes, 1-0, Saturday in the Eastern Conference final.

The growing belief in MLS is that gaining home-field advantage in the playoffs by having the best record is not much of a bonus for eight months' work.

"It's absolutely not sufficient reward for what you go through for 30 games in the regular season," the Galaxy's Landon Donovan said. "There needs to be a change."

Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena agreed but said he wasn't going to grouse about it. "It is what it is," he said. "It was well understood before the season began, so why complain about it now?

"If we want to change things as coaches and technical directors and general managers, we need to do a better job of educating our ownership" to the need for change," Arena added. "I think a lot of us in the league at this point believe that there should be a greater reward for being regular-season champion."

That is an argument for the future, however. For the moment, Dallas awaits, and it will not be easy for Los Angeles to overcome.

Apart from its record-tying 19-game unbeaten streak, Dallas was unbeaten in 12 consecutive road games and its total of four losses was tied for the fewest in the league with defending champion Real Salt Lake, which Dallas ousted in the first round of the playoffs.

"They can beat you in a lot of different ways," Arena said of the "quick, skillful, attacking players" Dallas has.

"They know their strengths and they play to them," Beckham said. "They've got a couple of good players that they get the ball to as quickly as possible, and then they break on you. They've got a good team, good individuals and a good worth ethic. When you've got that, you'll be successful."

Said Donovan: "They play fast, they play hard, they're athletic and they have good, talented players all over the field. I think it's going to be a good game."

Then there is what might be called the "Galaxy graduates" factor. Three starters for Dallas used to play for Los Angeles.

One of them is Daniel Hernandez, the midfield enforcer who jokingly refers to himself as "a finesse player" even though his aggressive, hard-tackling style suggests just the opposite.

"I've got plenty of bruises to prove otherwise," said Donovan.

Another is defender Ugo Ihemelu, but the most important of the three on Sunday will be goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, the league's all-time leader in victories and shutouts and the man who was in the nets for the Galaxy when it won the 2002 and 2005 MLS titles.

"I think the last part of the year he's been the best goalkeeper in the league," Donovan said.

"He's a player who even to this day is very well respected and admired by our fans," Arena said.

"He's at his best right now," said Dallas Coach Schellas Hyndman, the league's coach of the year. "He's a wonderful shot-stopper. I don't think people recognize how much he really adds to this team — his communications skills, his organizational skills. He just makes FC Dallas better."

The player who really makes Dallas tick, however, is Colombian playmaker David Ferreira.

"Our team basically goes the way Ferreira goes," said Hyndman said. "He may not have the number of goals or the number of assists [that the Galaxy's Edson Buddle and Donovan have, respectively] but he's always involved. He's a player that gives us the opportunity to be in every game."

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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