Big calls ahead for LA Galaxy, Dynamo

BY Kyle McCarthy • September 25, 2013

Midweek trips to Costa Rica usually provide an opening for Los Angeles Galaxy coach Bruce Arena to leave out one or two key figures for Major League Soccer tribulations ahead. Arena juggles his squad adroitly during the CONCACAF Champions League group stage and trusts his reserves to shoulder much of the burden at this juncture in the competition.

The bond between Arena and his reserves remains, but Landon Donovan made the trip to Central America anyways. Donovan missed the 1-1 draw with Seattle on Saturday with a left ankle sprain. His inclusion in the travel party -- first mentioned by Arena to reporters on Monday -- underscores the importance placed upon this meeting with C.S. Cartaginés (live, FOX Soccer Plus, Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET, FOX Soccer Plus).

Instead of leaving Donovan in southern California to rest alongside Robbie Keane and other several starters, Arena chose to bring the United States international with him in a bid to obtain the point required to assure the top spot in Group 8 and secure a place in the quarterfinal stage. He doesn't have to use Donovan from the start. He just wants to have him in case he needs him at some point.

The conundrum in Costa Rica also extends to Houston's vital home tie against W Connection (live, FOX Sports, Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 2): what are the benefits of extending the squad -- even if just a little bit -- in order to ensure the desired result?

As always in Champions League play, the answer starts with balance. Both teams will strive to field a competitive team without hindering the efforts at the weekend. The contrasting demands of the two affairs – a match in San José against Cartaginés poses a higher degree of difficulty than a home date against a Trinidadian side – dictate different measures. And the particular league placements of the two clubs also factor into how both managers will attempt to set out their stall.

LA Galaxy possesses a bit more latitude to operate given its perch in the Western Conference. The table remains a bit muddled with second (Real Salt Lake) through fifth place (Colorado, due to tiebreakers in favor of the fourth-placed Galaxy) separated by three points heading into this week, but the MLS Cup holders still sit four points clear of sixth-placed Vancouver and hold a game in hand on the Rapids. Every point matters in this situation -- particularly with a visit to third-placed Portland ahead on Sunday afternoon -- yet the Galaxy is not in a position where its playoff future is at immediate stake.

Houston, however, remains entrenched in the almighty tussle for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. Dominic Kinnear's side enters this week on the right side of the line in fourth place without feeling entirely assured of its postseason future. The Dynamo enjoys a similar, four-point margin over sixth-placed Chicago without the luxury of a game in hand over any of its closest competitors. The prospect of a difficult match at fifth-place New England on Saturday night combined with the easier task against W Connection could prompt a more conservative approach to team selection.

As both coaches will correctly point out to their charges, the chosen players -- starters, reserves or a mixture from both realms -- must still tend to their task to dispatch the opposition. Montréal exited Champions League play on Tuesday night in the wake of a 2-0 home victory over Heredia on Tuesday night due to a previous defeat in Guatemala and a ragged performance at San Jose last week. Sporting Kansas City also fell short of that critical standard with a raft of starters included last week and settled for a 1-1 home draw with Nicaraguan minnows Real Estelí. The squandered opportunity to clinch in that tie means Sporting must avoid defeat to Olimpia at Sporting Park next month to advance.

Although the situation creates some complications for Sporting as the MLS season winds to a close and could present some issues for Houston and LA Galaxy if results go awry tonight, it isn't the worst-case scenario. San Jose's interim coach Mark Watson can play any starter he chooses in the must-win home clash with Heredia on Oct. 23. Why? By that stage of the season, the Earthquakes -- barring some miraculous run of results to extend their recent run of good form and push their way into the Western Conference playoff race -- will have turned their attention to next season.

It isn't easy to chart the proper course through the conclusion of the Champions League group stage and the denouement of the MLS campaign at the same time, but the quandary presented by playing in two competitions -- difficult as it is to manage at some points – sure beats the alternative.

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