SAN JOSE - It's been said that the most dangerous team to play is one with nothing to lose. With the San Jose Earthquakes finishing 19 points ahead of playoff opponents Los Angeles Galaxy, that's exactly the situation that the Quakes find themselves in ahead of Sunday's first leg encounter at The Home Depot Center.
So just how will San Jose cope with such an approach? With the same attributes that have served them so well this season - namely confidence, a take-no-prisoners attitude, and a healthy respect for their opponents.
Those attributes should stand the Quakes in good stead, because San Jose appears to have plenty of reasons to be overconfident, including their emphatic 3-1 win against L.A. last weekend. But one only has to look at the fate of last year's Supporters' Shield winners, the Columbus Crew, to realize that being the best team in the regular season is no guarantee of postseason success.
According to defender Danny Califf, the Quakes know they can't take anything for granted.
"All year we've come out with a really superior attitude and if we can continue that all the way through the playoffs, we'll be successful," said Califf. "But if we sit back and say 'We were the best team in the league, and finished 19 points ahead of L.A.' then that's where we're going to have trouble and trip up."
Quakes head coach Dominic Kinnear has been vigilant in preventing any overconfidence from creeping into San Jose's game, and he's had some help in this regard as well.
"I don't let the players get overconfident," said Kinnear. "And the players don't let themselves, and they don't let each other get overconfident. But they know what the plan is for Sunday, and that's to come out, work their tails off, make life difficult for L.A. and play well when we have the ball. It's a different scenario because it's the playoffs, but it's always the same message."
That message will also include doing their utmost to starve Galaxy attacker Landon Donovan of service. Last weekend, San Jose succeeded almost too well. The former Earthquake's first meaningful touch of the ball was when he deposited a penalty kick past San Jose goalkeeper Pat Onstad for L.A.'s only goal of the match. That game also saw Donovan positioned in a wide role for long stretches, before moving up top later in the game.
So where will Donovan line up on Sunday? Kinnear suspects that his former charge will line up closer to goal this weekend. But regardless of where Donovan is stationed, Kinnear is also wary of the other attacking threats at L.A.'s disposal.
"Herculez Gomez causes problems because he's got good pace and he likes to sneak behind the defense," said Kinnear. "You also have [Peter] Vagenas, who likes to make late runs. He comes in late and causes problems. I still think [Joseph] Ngwenya is a handful."
The Quakes will counter with some lethal attacking options of their own, especially in the form of midfielder Dwayne De Rosario, who is on a run of form that has earned him MVP consideration. De Rosario scored on an otherworldly free kick in last weekend's win against the Galaxy, but the Canadian international expects a tougher matchup this time around.
"I think you're going to see a different L.A. team coming out," said De Rosario. "They'll bring more pressure, be more physical, and we're going to have to match that."
San Jose's cause will be aided by the return of forward Ronald Cerritos and defender Wade Barrett, who both participated in Friday's practice. There's even a remote chance that forward Alejandro Moreno will make the substitutes' bench, as the Venezuelan has progressed faster than expected from a sprained ankle suffered last week. Moreno started light running on Friday and is still hopeful of playing some part in Sunday's match.
"You don't want to swim this far and then drown at the shore," said Moreno. "You want to be a part of it. If I'm able to run [Saturday], I should be able to play on Sunday."
And what happens on Sunday should be yet another epic match in what has been the league's most hotly contested rivalry.
Said Califf: "It's the same thing with L.A. every time. It's going to come down to a knock-down, drag-out fistfight in the end, and a few lapses in concentration or a few moments of brilliance are what's going to decide the game."
Jeff Carlisle is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.