ALAJUELA, Costa Rica -- It's a three-team battle for two berths in the CONCACAF Champions League's knockout stage, and whether the Galaxy grabs one of those slots could depend on what happens Wednesday night at Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto.
L.A. (2-1-0) takes on Costa Rican champion Alajuelense (2-1-0) needing at least one point -- and preferably three -- to maintain command of its Group A prospects, and it's not going to be simple.
Alajuela has a quality side, to be sure, one bolstered by the presence of a half-dozen rested starters forced to miss last weekend's league clash (while suspended for a brawl in La Liga's previous game). But it's the club's fans, and the atmosphere they create in the cramped, aging neighborhood stadium that could make the difference.
Playing in Central America always is an adventure, and taking on Alajuelense on its home field might be the most difficult assignment in the region.
“It's an intimidating venue,” says Galaxy left back Todd Dunivant, who played at Morera Soto in a Champions' Cup qualifier nearly a decade ago while with the San Jose Earthquakes. “We've tried to give the guys kind of what to expect. It's going to be people up against the cages, pounding, yelling everything you can imagine. It's going to be a hostile environment, for sure. We're trying to get guys prepped for that.”
That's not easy to do. There is no similar environment certainly in Major League Soccer, maybe nowhere in North America and in only a few places around the globe. The stadium is small, box-like, and the stands rise like a wall of people towering over an unforgiving artificial-turf field.
“You're down in the locker room,” Dunivant said, “and the stands are right above you. ... You can hear everything, and they're stamping and the fans are going crazy. The locker room is like 8 by 10 [feet]. Guys got to see it today, and they got a little bit of a feel. It was an advantage to come out and kind of see what we can expect.”
The Galaxy can use every advantage it can find. They're even on points with Morelia (2-1-0) and Alajuelense but sit atop Group A because of head-to-head results among the trio. If not for last week's collapse in Mexico, where Morelia rallied with two goals in the final 10 minutes for a 2-1 triumph, L.A. would be on the verge of clinching a spot in next year's quarterfinals.
Instead, there's three games left -- and picking up road points is mandatory. Only Alajuela has done so, last week winning at last-place Motagua, from Honduras. A road win over one of the group's contenders, or even a draw, will go a long way.
“When you play a round-robin like this, any time you get a point on the road, it's getting a point and taking points away [from your opponent], so it's crucial,” said Galaxy captain Landon Donovan. “That's why the Mexico result hurt.”
Said midfielder Chris Birchall: “That’s what the Champions League is about -- every team needs to win their home games to qualify from the group, so it’s a good result when you get a point away from home and win all your home games, because you know you’re going to get through the group. We felt like we were unlucky in Mexico. That game’s gone, and we’re still going tough with six points. We feel like if we get something away, whether it’s a point and we battle hard or manage to get three points, that would be great, but as long as we don’t come out of Costa Rica with a defeat, we’ll be happy.”
L.A. could field something close to a first-team lineup. David Beckham, who didn't travel to the Morelia game, is slated to play, even on the hard, high-bounce turf, which does nobody's body any good -- and certainly not his ailing back.
“In David's case, we think he's in much better shape this week than last week,” head coach Bruce Arena said. “So we think that he's capable of playing.”
Beckham has been the primary focus of fans in San Jose, drawing huge crowds at the airport when the team arrived Monday night, at the team's hotel and on a shopping excursion at the mall across the street, and at Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto for the Galaxy's training session Tuesday night. He's posed for photos, signed autographs and charmed the Costa Ricans in and around the capital.
These same fans likely will be looking to intimidate him when he takes the field.
“It's hard to know [what impact he will have on the crowd]. I thought about that,” Donovan said. “In Morelia, when he didn't come on the trip, they were telling their fans that he was coming on a later flight [to sell more tickets], so people are trying to maximize it. It will be interesting to see what the crowd is like.
“With him, it’s a whole different animal. Even with other really good soccer players around the world, there is an excitement, but [fans are] still rooting for their team -- they’re still rooting against the other player. David, everybody just loves him. There will probably be a lot of people there who are just fans of his, too.”
But the atmosphere is what it is.
“He’s going to have to figure it out, but he’s played in some hostile environments. He knows,” Donovan said. “The biggest thing is you have to kind of just get on with it. A lot of things are going to go against you, and you’ve just got to get on with it and keep going, because you don’t get anywhere by complaining or worrying about it. That’s a lesson we’ve all had to learn at some point.”
WORTH NOTING: Morelia plays at Motagua on Wednesday night, then visits Home Depot Center next week. The Galaxy closes its group campaign in mid-October at Motagua. ... Midfielder/defender Sean Franklin, sidelined with an inflamed knee, did not travel, but Juninho, coming off a hamstring strain, could be ready to go. ... Fox Soccer Channel and Galavision will telecast Wednesday's game at 7 p.m. PT. ... The Galaxy flies immediately after the game to Columbus, Ohio, for Saturday night's MLS game against the Crew.