CARSON, Calif. -- An excruciating and at times exhilarating campaign has fallen into place for the LA Galaxy, which faces a most simple scenario heading into Sunday afternoon's Decision Day presented by AT&T regular-season finale against the Houston Dynamo (4:30 pm ET | TV & streaming info) at StubHub Center.
Win, and LA (13-11-9) head to the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs. Lose or draw, and Real Salt Lake, whose schedule is complete, survive Portland's recent home-and-home sweep — the trigger for the Galaxy's chances — and hold onto the No. 6 spot in the Western Conference.
“It could be worse, you know?” LA's interim head coach Dominic Kinnear said. “One game at home, we have to win. I don't think we need to really talk to the guys about what's going on.”
The Galaxy have waded through four “must-win” games — well, three and a “must-draw” — posting successive 3-0 home wins over Seattle and Vancouver, a 1-1 draw at Sporting Kansas City and last weekend's 3-1 triumph at Minnesota United, to keep alive what were dimming hopes of getting back to the postseason after a worst-in-MLS finish last year.
“Four games ago is the moment when it started, like, either we want or we don't want,” said star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who netted his 21st and 22nd goals of the season in Minnesota. “So if we want, we got to take points in all the remaining games, and so far we took points, and now we have everything in our hand.
“That's easier to control than being dependent on the other teams, because you do good and other teams do good, and you don't make it. But now we have everything in our hand, and that's basically what we want.”
LA also might have Giovani dos Santos, who because of a pesky calf injury has seen just 65 minutes since the end of July and last saw the field in the 6-2 loss Sept. 1 at Real Salt Lake, Sigi Schmid's final game as head coach before Kinnear stepped in. The attacking midfielder has been training most of the past two weeks, could be available for selection, and would provide a potent, if rusty, weapon off the bench.
“We're going to talk to him and see if he can be part of the 18 on Sunday ...,” Kinnear said. “The time has to be right. We can't rush him. And I think he's done his work off the field to put himself into position to be considered on Sunday.”
The Galaxy figure to go with the same lineup Kinnear has used in the past four games. Dos Santos, if in the starting XI, “wouldn't last for 90, that's for sure,” Kinnear said.
Dos Santos said he was “taking it day by day.”
“I'm really happy to be back on the field and training with the guys,” he said. “It's been a difficult and frustrating last couple of months, and I'm looking forward to contributing in any way I can as we push for the playoffs.”
The Dynamo (9-16-8) are 1-10-5 on the road while conceding two goals per game and have won just twice since July 14, but the Galaxy don't believe that'll mean much Sunday.
“They've got pace, and they kind of lull you to sleep a little bit, and they can catch you on the break,” said Kinnear. “With [Romell] Quioto, [Mauro] Manotas and [Alberth] Elis, [there are] three guys who can score and cause you problems, run very well [and are] strong. Then [Tomas] Martinez underneath is a good soccer player. I think he's figuring out the league each game and getting better.
“They try and bring it forward to kind of catch you and leave space behind, so it's important you're organized, especially when we have to ball, and then not be reckless with it. If we [keep the ball], we'll give ourselves some good chances to score.”
The Galaxy are confident, but “we're not taking [a victory] for granted,” captain Ashley Cole said. “We've not made it into any playoffs yet, but we're happy it's in our hands.”
The work that got LA here is wasted if they don't win this one.
“The last games have been crazy, because if we slipped up in one game, we were out ...,” he said. “All the [work that went into the last] four games will mean nothing if we don't make it Sunday, so we will do everything to make it work. Not only the four games, the full season. Because we put ourselves in this situation, so now it's up to us to come out of this situation.
“Hopefully, we can come out of it in the way we want.”