The stakes are simple.
A win against LA on Wednesday means the Philadelphia Union reclaim first place in the Eastern Conference.
A loss means that the Union suffer their first losing streak of 2011.
On 16 points, the Galaxy are statistically the best team in Major League Soccer. But they've played 10 games this year, compared to the Union's seven.
LA got the better of the Union on April 2, winning 1-0 at the Home Depot Center. A Leonardo header off a David Beckham set piece sealed the deal, even though a Chris Birchall red card gave the Union a man advantage for much of the second half. Philadelphia will look to avenge that loss and split the season series as the Galaxy make the return trip to PPL Park.
Union Catch a Break on Set Pieces
The Galaxy's strength is the Union's weakness. In all competitions this year, the Union have conceded five goals. All five of those goals came either directly from set pieces, or from failure to clear the ball following a set piece situation.
There's a major wrinkle here, though: Beckham did not make the trip to Philadelphia. With his absence, the Galaxy suddenly are without the best dead ball taker in MLS, and one of the best in the world.
That doesn't mean the Union can let down their guard, but they no longer have to prepare for Beckham, who assisted on the last two game-winners against Philadelphia from dead ball situations, both 1-0 scorelines.
The Galaxy offense created numerous dangerous chances against New York on Saturday. Landon Donovan's 41st minute goal was his fourth of the year, a free header off a Beckham corner kick. Beckham already has five assists on the season.
After conceding early to New York, the Galaxy took control, putting pressure on the Red Bulls defense and forcing Bouna Coundoul into some terrific saves. Notably, a Chad Barrett effort in the 9th minute came through a corner kick that was knocked down in the box, but Coundoul made the save.
Arguably, the Galaxy were the better side on Saturday night. A spectacular goal line clearance from Tim Ream was, no doubt, the difference-maker, preventing a Donovan brace while preserving a point for New York on the road.
As for the Union, a makeshift backline performed very well against Portland on Friday. The only crack in the defense came on yet another set piece, Mamadou Danso latching onto a Jack Jewsbury free kick in the 72nd minute. With Sheanon Williams and Carlos Valdes at center half, and the Farfan twins on the left and right, the backline stifled Portland in the run of play. But Danso's goal was all the Timbers needed to walk away with a 1-0 win.
Watching the Tape
The Union faced the Galaxy just six weeks ago, so that game should be fresh in the minds of both teams.
The Galaxy created a number of chances in the first half, Miguel Lopez hitting one shot over the bar, and Beckham forcing Mondragon to save a low drive off a rebound.
LA had several set piece opportunities throughout the game, with Leonardo's goal coming from a 33rd minute Beckham cross. The English World Cup veteran also went for goal on a tight-angle free kick, and Juninho could have made it 2-0, but slammed the cross bar on a 52nd minute drive from 20 yards out.
The Union's best chance came on a great cross from Jordan Harvey. The driven ball just missed the outstretched Carlos Ruiz, before Williams hit the outside netting on his far post run. Another chance developed from a chipped ball from Kyle Nakazawa. The pass found Sebastien Le Toux, but Le Toux's run on goal was snuffed out in the box.
Location, Location, Location
Without a doubt, home field advantage will be a factor on Wednesday.
At 2-0-2, the Galaxy are unbeaten at home. Away from home, they're 2-2-2, having scored six goals.
But the biggest factor is Philadelphia playing in front of their home fans at PPL Park. While the Union are 1-2-0 on the road, they remain unbeaten at home at 3-0-1, having conceded just one goal.
Last year's affair at PPL Park was a memorable one. The Union matched LA's quality, yet fell 1-0 on a Beckham corner, driven home by Edson Buddle. Last year's match was eerily similar to the April 2 match in Carson – same scoreline, same type of goal.
The Union are clearly out to get the best of the Galaxy for the first time in club history.
Harvey returns from his red card suspension, and Danny Califf should be back from illness. That means Williams can slide back over to the right side. Barring anything unforeseen, the four defenders who started the first six matches of the season for Philadelphia will be together again. The defense isn't where the questions lie.
For much of the year, the Union have started games in a 4-2-2-2 formation, using two holding midfielders. The home game vs. San Jose and the U.S. Open Cup play-in against DC were the only starting lineups that did not include two defensive midfielders.
After the offensive struggles in Portland – and over the course of the first seven games for that matter – what can the Union do to start producing more goals?
The home side can stay with a 4-2-2-2, go straight to a 4-2-3-1, or use the 4-4-2 that included Roger Torres and Danny Mwanga in the starting lineup. The Union have done well in the 4-2-3-1, though that formation is often a second half adjustment based on opponent's tactics.
With the fewest goals scored this year in MLS, the Union offense is in dire need of a jumpstart.
Don't be surprised to see coach John Hackworth, who will be filling in for manager Peter Nowak, go with an offensive-minded formation on Wednesday.
From top to bottom, Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena has put together a quality side. We know what Donovan can do. Juan Pablo Angel looked much improved on Saturday, and, as usual, Juninho covered tons of ground in a box-to-box midfield role. Todd Dunivant whipped in several dangerous crosses, and Omar Gonzalez held steady with A.J. DeLaGarza in central defense.
In reality, it's a gut check for the Union. A win or tie on Wednesday would preserve the Union's unbeaten home record, but anything short of three points would have to be considered a disappointment for a team looking to keep pace with the Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference. Seeing a multiple goal effort, something Philadelphia have yet to manage, would also be a very encouraging sign against a relatively stingy LA defense.