When the ball is kicked off at The Home Depot Center on Sunday afternoon, it will mark the start of the Western Conference Semifinal Series between the Los Angeles Galaxy and the San Jose Earthquakes. After 32 games, the fate of both teams comes down to a two-leg, home-and-home series.
The format begs an interesting question: Just how much of a home-field advantage is there in a two-game series? The reward for the stellar season that the Quakes enjoyed seems minimal, which is why the Galaxy aren't too focused on their supposed disadvantage heading into the first round of the MLS Cup Playoffs.
"Even before we ended up in fourth place, I think you could have asked anybody on the team, it doesn't seem like the advantage is as great as the effort you have to put in during the regular season," said veteran Galaxy 'keeper Kevin Hartman.
"After a 32-game period, you have to go on the road and if you don't fare well on the road, it's almost a moot point coming home. We want to make sure we put San Jose under pressure. We don't want to make things easy for them when we get up there."
The two teams met in the conference semifinals in 2003, with San Jose pulling off a miracle comeback in the second leg, winning 5-4 on aggregate after losing the first 2-0 in Carson, then falling behind 2-0 early in the home leg.
Landon Donovan was a part of that Earthquakes team and now as a member of the Galaxy, will play a big hand in trying to prevent history from repeating itself this year. He reiterated the points made by Hartman.
"It's difficult because you play a long season and you want to be rewarded for doing so well. At the end of the day the advantage is not huge," Donovan said on a conference call Thursday. "In San Jose's case it's probably more of an advantage than any other team in the league to have your second game at home."
The second leg will be played in the unfriendly confines of Spartan Stadium, that houses the smallest playing surface in MLS. The Quakes have enjoyed the comforts of home, having gone undefeated in San Jose during the regular season -- thus adding emphasis to the need of getting not just a win, but a convincing win at home in the first leg for the Galaxy.
Home-and-home series are nothing new in soccer, long established in international club competitions around the world. In fact, the final spots for next summer's World Cup will be decided by a number of two-legged playoffs. The general philosophy is the same: play for a win at home and a draw on the road, and you advance.
Both the Galaxy and the Quakes will have one opportunity to shine at home, which has given Los Angeles good cause to downplay the home-field advantage San Jose has.
"There's still an advantage, but less so in this first round," said head coach Steve Sampson. "The true advantage comes in the second round when you have the one-game series. In this first round I don't see it being significant."
Greg Daurio is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.