For the first time in several weeks, the Los Angeles Galaxy will have all their defenders available this Friday when they open their Western Conference semifinal series against the Colorado Rapids.
Over the last two weeks of the season, Galaxy coach Steve Sampson has seen players like Tyrone Marshall and Ryan Suarez unavailable due to national team duties or yellow card suspensions.
In their absence, Danny Califf and Sasha Victorine filled the gaps. Victorine was playing out of his natural position and will probably play in the midfield this week, but Califf, who is a center back by trade, stepped in nicely and now provides Sampson with a tough decision that many coaches don't have the luxury of having to make.
Sampson has long settled on his outside backs, with Paul Broome roaming the left flank, and Chris Albright his counterpart on the right. Both players know that their first priority is to defend, but under Sampson they have seen an expanded role.
"When we're playing well is when you see Paul get involved in the attack," Sampson said. "It's when you see Albright get involved."
With the fullbacks set, the question now is who will start in the middle for the Galaxy. Suarez, Marshall and Califf are all experienced defenders more than capable of helping their team throughout the playoffs. Although he missed the last two games of the season, Jamaican international Marshall figures to step back into his role as the anchor of the defense.
"Tyrone will start in the middle. Outside of that, every day is a competition," Sampson said.
The Galaxy will be looking to bring players forward this weekend in an attempt to get a positive result on the road in the first leg of the home-and-home series. The Galaxy will again line up in a 4-5-1 formation this weekend, as has been the norm under Sampson.
But when they get into the attack, one of the outside backs usually pushes into the attack as well, leaving just three defenders back, with a defensive midfielder helping. When the fullbacks get forward, the Rapids will be looking to counter and try and steal a goal or two.
"Whether it's Mark Chung, or (John) Spencer, or (Chris) Henderson, if you let your guard down they'll beat you," Sampson said.
Knowing that, Sampson hinted that the later Friday's game goes without a goal, he might consider dropping more players behind the ball to preserve a tie and return home to win the series.
But through it all, Sampson is blessed with a chance of picking his back four based on who has the best week in training, rather than picking from who is available. He knows that the road to the MLS Cup Final starts on the back line.
"A lot of people feel defenses win championships, and I'm a believer in that," he said.
Greg Daurio is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.