CARSON, Calif. -- The LA Galaxy know how to overcome San Jose in the Western Conference Semifinals: Don't give away leads.
They ought to have beaten the Earthquakes in all three regular-season meetings this year, but lapses against a relentless foe cost them dearly. The Galaxy let four second-half advantages disappear in two defeats and a draw, and making sure it doesn't happen again is a focal point ahead of Sunday evening's series opener at the Home Depot Center (9 pm ET; ESPN, live chat on MLSsoccer.com).
The Galaxy know they can score goals on San Jose, so set-piece defense and winning the second balls are priorities -- and so is weathering Quakes' effective but abrasive approach to the game.
“It's a rival, it's a game that's going to be scrappy, we're going to be fighting,” defender Sean Franklin told reporters on Saturday. “It's two teams that hate each other. It's all about who's going to come out on top.”
The Quakes' direct, physical style, embodied by the punishment Alan Gordon and especially Steven Lenhart deal out up front, prompted Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez to bash them following a 2-2 draw two weeks ago as “a bunch of jokes” who play an “embarrassing” style of soccer.
Marcelo Sarvas this week was more diplomatic.
“The ball is in the defense, it's long ball direct to the forwards and fight for the second ball,” the Brazilian midfielder said. “This is constant. Ninety minutes they play like that. It's nothing beautiful to see. It's some kind of boring football, my opinion, but it is the way they are leading the league, so we have to respect this and be ready for it.”
Landon Donovan calls the Quakes “physical” and “aggressive” but says he doesn't believe “they're particularly dirty in the things they do. I think they definitely bend the rules as much as they can, and you have to rely on the officiating to some extent to make sure they're protecting guys and seeing things and calling plays that deserve to be fouls.”
The Galaxy have been called for more fouls (39-31), received more cards (six yellows and a red to five yellows for San Jose) and conceded a clear penalty in this year's encounters; the Quakes have committed more fouls and picked up more cards for the season, although the differences aren't substantial.
LA dished praise this week on referee Ricardo Salazar, who will be in the middle. Defender Todd Dunivant called him “probably the best referee in the league,” and Donovan said he “knows what kind of game San Jose plays. So I have no question he's going to take care of us.”
The defending champs, however, still need to take care of themselves. They were the better team in all three regular-season meetings but failed to hold on to two-goal leads in defeats on May 23 and June 30 and let two goals slip away in the Oct. 21 tie. The Quakes have been doing such things all year: They've rallied from behind to win five games and tie six -- that's 21 points -- and have claimed 19 points with goals from the 82nd minute on, 15 of them in stoppage.
“I think every team that's played San Jose this year has realized one thing: The game's 90-plus minutes,” Donovan said. “And it'll be 180-plus minutes in the series. And if you turn off for one moment, they can make you pay. ... They test your ability to concentrate for 90 minutes. There's a few teams in this league where if you're not good on the day, they can really punish you. Not just beat you, but beat you handily.
“San Jose's scored a bunch of goals on us this year. And the moments we haven't been sharp, they've been good, and they've got three or four guys who can absolutely punish you if you make mistakes. And they've done that against us this year.”