COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It's a month until Major League Soccer's regular season concludes, and the conference leaders are facing off. One of the season's premier showdowns, right?
The Galaxy won't say so publicly, but Saturday night's clash with the Columbus Crew ranks only so high among their priorities -- well below next week's CONCACAF Champions League meeting with Morelia at Home Depot Center.
So expect to see a secondary lineup at Crew Stadium, one without David Beckham and Robbie Keane -- and perhaps Landon Donovan.
Beckham has returned to L.A., Keane is unlikely after straining a guteal muscle in Wednesday's Champions League loss at Alajuelense, and Donovan could use a day off during a difficult stretch of two-a-weeks that continues through the Oct. 4 makeup match at New York.
Dasan Robinson, acquired from Toronto FC at the roster-freeze deadline, figures to make his Galaxy debut, probably at right back, and rookie Justin McCarty also could play his initial league minutes for L.A.
That's not something head coach Bruce Arena was prepared to discuss.
“We're going to put a team on the field that we believe can win the game. Whatever combination of players that is,” he said Friday. “I'm not going to sort out the lineup until [Saturday]. We'll see how guys come through the game [in Costa Rica], the travel, all that, before we make a decision.”
The only definite is Beckham is out, and that comes as a surprise only to those not paying attention. The star midfielder went the full 90 on Alajuela's unforgiving artificial surface, and it took its toll. His legs swelled afterward, his left shoulder was hurting after a tumble, and there was the expected impact on his ailing back.
“It's never easy to play on [a surface like that],” he said. “It's not a surface I like to play on -- or any other player likes to play on.”
The plan all along was for Beckham to head home after the team's charter arrived in Columbus. He played in last week's league win over Vancouver, and, as Arena noted: “He hasn't played three games in a week the whole year. ... We've done this the entire year.”
No sense in risking further injury to Keane, either. And as well as Donovan, left back Todd Dunivant -- he's played every minute of the MLS and CCL slates -- could use a night off.
It's not that the Columbus game isn't important. But Wednesday night's game against Morelia is, as Arena termed it, “must-win” if the Galaxy are going to reach next year's knockout stage of the region's club championship.
The Galaxy is 16-3-10 in MLS and streaking toward successive Supporters' Shields -- the regular-season championship -- and have a little room for error. But not much.
Real Salt Lake (15-7-6) and Seattle (14-6-9), which clinched playoff berths when Sporting Kansas City and Philadelphia drew Friday night, are seven points behind, and the Utahns' ceiling is only four points below L.A.'s (73-69). A slip-up here could be harmful.
“Salt Lake continues to put pressure on us. Seattle continues to put pressure on us,” Donovan said. “While we have a nice, little cushion, that can go away quickly if we lose a game or two and those other teams keep winning.
“It's an important game [against the Crew]. It's on the road, which makes it a little more difficult, but there are only five games left, so we need to get as many points as we can.”
The Crew's hold on the Eastern lead is tenuous after their failure to win in the last month. Sporting pulled even on points with Friday's result but trail Columbus (11-10-8) in the head-to-head battle with the second meeting coming Wednesday in K.C. That one's more important than this one, but every point matters now.
“[Winning] would not be a statement that we are better than L.A.,” Crew coach Robert Warzycha told local media this week. “We may be [better] that game, but we have a lot of work to do. For us, if we win, it’s just another three points, but how good we can be, we don’t know.
“We know how good they are. They are consistent. We are not. That’s where we’re coming from.”
WORTH NOTING: The latest club to proclaim it wants Beckham when his MLS contract expires at season's end: French giant Paris Saint-Germain. ... The latest star linked in the media to the Galaxy: Former Real Madrid great Guti, who is unhappy in Turkey with Besiktas. ... The Galaxy is 7-1-1 in their last eight and 12-1-7 in their last 19. ... L.A. leads the all-time series, 15-12-8 but has won just three of 15 meetings in Columbus. ... Sean Franklin's first MLS goal lifted the Galaxy to a 1-0 win in the season's first meeting two months ago. ... Beckham and Donovan face suspensions with their next yellow cards. ... Midfielder Emmanuel Ekpo returns from suspension for the Crew. ... The game is a sellout.
MISSING: Beckham (back spasms) is questionable on the league's injury report. ... Central defenders Gregg Berhalter (sprained foot), Leonardo and Sean Alvarado (both torn ACLs) remain out. Franklin (inflamed knee) also is out. ... Keane (gluteus tightness) and goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts (quad tightness) are questionable.
Former Polish national-teamer Warzycha, a winger of quality, was an MLS original with the Crew, wrapping up a 17-year career with seven seasons in Columbus. He became an assistant coach upon retiring, spent the last half of 2005 as interim head coach, then got the job full-time after Sigi Schmid took off for Seattle after the 2008 MLS Cup triumph.
Three key players
Dynamic Peruvian forward Andres Mendoza, the Crew's Designated Player, overcame a difficult start to the season to take charge of the attack. His 11 goals -- four in the past five games -- trail only Donovan's and Thierry Henry's totals (12 apiece).
Midfielder Eddie Gaven, a ninth-year veteran at 24, has evolved into a tricky flank creator, expert at beating defenders to score or set up chances for teammates.
Big Chad Marshall has long been one of MLS's top central defenders, and his leadership has been pivotal to the Crew's defensive success this season.
The Crew vaulted to the top of the Eastern Conference with an 8-4-3 stretch from late May through Aug. 20, but it's been downhill since, and they're clinging to the top spot now. Injuries have hurt, especially at the back, and Seattle and Toronto combined to score 10 goals in back-to-back games Aug. 27 and Sept. 10. The winless streak hit four with a home draw against Houston and a loss last week at Philadelphia.
Marshall, from Riverside, played at Rubidoux High School and for Irvine Strikers. ... Midfielder Robbie Rogers lived in Palos Verdes and Huntington Beach and played at Mater Dei High School and for Orange County Blue Star. ... Midfielder Josh Gardner played for the Galaxy from 2004 to 2006.
Midfielder Tony Tchani, who hasn't played since arriving in mid-July from Toronto, is out for the year after knee surgery. Defender Ben Sippola (hamstring strain) also is out. ... Defender Rich Balchan (oblique strain) and midfielder Corey Veeder (adductor strain) are doubtful. ... Gaven (bruised leg) and Marshall (hip flexor strain) are questionable. ... Forward Emilio Renteria (concussion), goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum (fractured thumb) and midfielder Bernardo Anor (sprained ankle) are probable.
At Crew Stadium (Columbus, Ohio), 4:30 p.m. PT
TV: Fox Sports West
Radio: K-Talk (KTLK-AM/1150, English) and ESPN Deportes (KWKW-AM/1330, Spanish)
Referee: Silviu Petrescu