The LA Galaxy begin their quest this weekend for an unprecedented three successive MLS Cup championships, and head coach Bruce Arena thinks the challenge is greater than it's ever been.
An “awkward” schedule that has the Knockout Round games, both Conference Semifinal legs and the openers in the Conference Championship played over a 12-day period and then two-week breaks before the Conference Championship second legs and MLS Cup title game is going to severely test teams' depth and ability to recover quickly.
“This is new territory for everybody,” Arena said Thursday in a media conference call. “There's a lot of games coming quick, and then the teams that are successful and make it to the conference final are going to have to deal with a long layoff. ...
"It's challenging all the way. It's going to be difficult because there's games that follow real quick. Recovery time is very difficult. It's going to be interesting. I don't think anyone really knows how it will play out.”
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The Galaxy open their Western Conference Semifinal series with Real Salt Lake on Sunday at the StubHub Center (9 pm ET; ESPN2), but Arena doesn't think the schedule – built around FIFA's mid-November international fixture dates – will have an impact, except perhaps on wild-card survivors, until this round is done.
RSL are home for the second leg on Nov. 7, and the Conference Championship likely would begin the following Sunday. And if LA get that far, the lineup could get jumbled.
“I don't think it impacts anything in the first couple games. I think after that it does,” Arena said. “We're playing now two games in five days. If we prevail, then it's three games in seven or eight days, which becomes a lot more difficult. That's where there could be changes. ...
"There's going to be a lot of games in a short period of time with a lot of travel. So it'll be challenging, and you need to keep an eye on all the players and see how they're doing and make decisions based on that.”
It could affect Landon Donovan, who is playing through a left ankle that hasn't healed completely after he sprained it in mid-September. He also could be needed in midfield, depending on where the Galaxy's depth is strongest.
“During the playoffs,” Arena said, “I imagine we'll move [Donovan's partnership with Robbie Keane] around a little bit.”
Arena figures to use his first-choice lineup Sunday, or something close, as the Galaxy seek an advantage to take to Utah next week. LA’s experience says it's not necessary: The Galaxy dropped the opener, at home, of their Western Conference Semifinal series last year against the San Jose Earthquakes, then romped to a three-goal halftime lead in the second leg to overcome the Supporters' Shield winners.
“I don't think we know the exact formula for [postseason] success,” Arena said. “One would think that it's a good start to start this competition with a win. Having said that, we didn't do that last year with San Jose. Anything goes. It's a 180-minute-plus competition right now, so if you prevail in 90, doesn't mean you're going to come out on top after 180-plus minutes.”