CARSON -- The Galaxy and Chivas USA face off in one of the most meaningful of SuperClasico showdowns, surely the biggest since the 2009 playoffs, and a rivalry first-timer will be playing the wild-card role.
The measure of Shalrie Joseph's impact in his Chivas debut Sunday night (ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes, 8 p.m.) could determine the final regular-season meeting this season, one which could send the Galaxy streaking toward a top-three spot in Major League Soccer's Western Conference or leave the Goats within striking distance -- with games in hand -- in the battle for the West's final postseason berth.
Joseph, 34, was acquired last week in a trade with the New England Revolution, and although the four-time MLS Best XI selection is on the far side of his professional arc, bringing him to L.A. could be be the pivotal step in Robin Fraser's quest to return Chivas to league-power status.
He figures to solidify the Goats' midfield, combine in the middle with Oswaldo Minda in what surely will be MLS's most intimidating central tandem, and provide the link required to connect a fine possession game with a talented frontline that has starved for appropriate service.
“He's a winner, he's a battler ...,” Fraser said. “He's a very intelligent player at both ends of the field. Very solid in the defensive end, certainly very competent and potent at the attacking end. We've seen many times in the past where New England needs something, so they put him up front and he scores a goal. They need him to play in the back, he prevents goals. You need him to connect through the midfield, he does that.
“Bringing him into the mix is certainly going to help.”
Chivas (7-8-5, 26 points) could use some assistance. It has scored just 14 times in 20 games, by far the worst total in the league, and sits just seven points behind L.A. (10-11-3, 33 points) on the other side of the dividing line for a playoff spot because of defense that has conceded an MLS-low 21 goals.
“It's about me trying to connect the dots, passing forward, trying to get the ball to the talented guys ...,” Joseph said. “I just find it unbelievable they haven't been able to score so many goals. World-class forwards they have here. So I look forward to getting them the balls in [dangerous] situations.”
The Grenada-born, Brooklyn-bred Joseph is certainly a known quantity. He spent nearly a decade with the Revolution, some of that as captain, and led the club to four MLS Cup title games. He likely would have been a starting midfielder for the U.S. in the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cups had he not impatiently turned out for his native island's national team when he was younger.
The Galaxy, who look to bounce back from last week's 4-0 debacle at Seattle without David Beckham, who is in London for the Olympic Closing Ceremonies, certainly know what Joseph can do. Left back Todd Dunivant calls him “one of the best defensive mids, if not the best, in the history of the league,” and head coach Bruce Arena predicts “in time he's going to be able to reshape their midfield.”
“He, in my opinion, has been one of the best probably 10 or 15 players in this league for a long time now,” Galaxy captain Landon Donovan said at Friday's news conference promoting the game, for which Chivas is the home team. “We fully expect him to play, to start. How they use him, we're not quite sure, and maybe they're still finding out, too. But he's an influential player and a good leader. ... I think he's going to gave an influence on their team in a very positive way.”
That's what the Goats hope.
“For me, he's been probably the best center midfielder we've had in this league a number of years,” forward Juan Pablo Angel said. “To have a player of his caliber here is going to be great.”
Said defender Danny Califf: “He's a beast. And he also wants the ball all the time. He wants to build the game and he wants to help connect and he's also good on set pieces. He's going to be really good for us right away and be a presence in midfield with his tackling ability, able to win balls and then connect the game.”
The Galaxy, who will need to prevent that to prevail, has played superbly most of the past two months, since MLS's minibreak for World Cup qualifiers ended in mid-June. They went 7-2-1, with a 3-1 triumph over Chivas on July 21, before last weekend's debacle in Seattle, climbing from the Western Conference cellar into prime playoff territory.
A Galaxy victory Sunday would open a huge chasm on their pursuers for the final berth and put them in position for a stretch-run fight with Seattle and Vancouver for the No. 3 spot, or better, to avoid the wild-card round.
“It's important we [build upon] that gap ...,” said striker Robbie Keane, MLS's Player of the Month for July. “Our goal is certainly to get into the playoffs -- it would be a tragedy if we didn't do that. I think if we get a couple results and sort of make a stand and we know we're in the playoffs, who knows what can happen, you know? We could go on a good run. We want to finish as high as possible, and that starts Sunday against Chivas.”
A Chivas victory narrows that gap to four points, and with the Goats having four games -- worth 12 points -- in hand.
“Knowing that we have a number of games in hand means not only a lot in terms of the point, but also in the confidence it will bring the team,” Angel said.
Dan Kennedy, whom Arena this week proclaimed “the best goalkeeper in the league this year,” has a different take: “Those games in hand don't mean anything unless we win them.”