While I'm looking forward to that silver ball showing up in a different stadium, I'm not counting on Vancouver to take it from them. - Victor Decolongon
Two teams heading in opposite season trajectories will face off in the Western Conference play-in round of the MLS Playoffs.
The Vancouver Whitecaps started 2012 with four straight clean sheets and lost only four games going into July, massively defying expectations in all aspects of their game and vastly outperforming their 2011 form.
The LA Galaxy, in beginning their campaign to defend the MLS Cup and Supporters Shield, won just three of their first thirteen games, spanning the first three months of the season, leaving many of us to wonder if the Galaxy heyday had ended.
Since then, both teams have dramatically reversed course.
After making some major personnel changes, the Whitecaps won just four games after July, with just six points in their final ten matches. They have qualified for the playoffs with nine points fewer than the Columbus Crew, which finished out of the Eastern Conference playoff running.
With key players like Eric Hassli, Sebastien Le Toux, and Davide Chiumiento departing, replaced by Kenny Miller, Dane Richards, and Barry Robson, the Whitecaps struggled to make the most of their superstar international lineup. A midseason injury to Omar Salgado, a key piece of the Caps' early success, didn't help matters.
The Galaxy, meanwhile, accrued 21 points in their final ten matches, collecting an average of more than two points per match since the beginning of June, which would have been good enough for another Supporters Shield if they had managed it over the whole season.
While the Martin Rennie sought to improve his Whitecaps through high profile international transfers, Bruce Arena, his team already stocked with international superstars, turned the Galaxy's season around by asking for more from his current roster.
The Galaxy's turnaround stemmed largely from Landon Donovan's improved performance, in spite of lingering motivation issues. Los Angeles has also benefited from the return of Omar Gonzalez from injury, as well as the return of Josh Saunders, who has established himself as one of the better keepers in MLS.
But more than anything else, the stability of the starting midfield -- with Donovan, Mike Magee, David Beckham, and Juninho all still together after all these years -- helped the Galaxy turn around their sloppy start. Once they turned around, they never turned back.
For the same reason the Galaxy was able to figure things out midseason, they will be able to do likewise against the Vancouver Whitecaps on Thursday. The Galaxy have the momentum, the talent, the experience, and the familiarity amongst themselves, to make this first round as much of a foregone conclusion as a playoff matchup can be.
With Stumptown Footy's official projection giving the Galaxy a 66% chance of winning, the Whitecaps will need a miraculous 90 minutes to advance.
6/23: Galaxy 3:0 Whitecaps
7/18: Whitecaps 2:2 Galaxy
9/1: Galaxy 2:0 Whitecaps
Galaxy: 7 points, 7 goals
Whitecaps: 1 point, 2 goals
Who's gonna win this one?
Vancouver Whitecaps (8 votes)
Los Angeles Galaxy (28 votes)
36 total votes