In the normal course of events, having turned a potentially disastrous season into a second-place finish, the Galaxy should be looking forward to Major League Soccer's playoffs.
But the MLS is not a normal league, and the Galaxy goes into Sunday's Western Conference playoff opener against the Dallas Burn without its two biggest drawing cards, if not its two most capable players--Jorge Campos and Mauricio Cienfuegos.
Because MLS could not schedule its season around World Cup '98 qualifying games, the league's most important matches of the year will be minus some of the league's best players.
Campos has had a so-so season in the nets for the Galaxy and his absence will be felt far less than that of Cienfuegos, the playmaker whose vision and technical skills make him the team's most valuable player.
Instead of facing Dallas on Sunday at the Rose Bowl, Cienfuegos will be trying to conjure some magic in Mexico City, where El Salvador plays Campos' Mexico in a key qualifying game for France '98.
That leaves it up to Martin Machon to pull the strings that make the Galaxy work. The Guatemalan midfielder believes Los Angeles is good enough to win, even without two of its stars.
"We always had high expectations [for the season]," Machon said after the Galaxy had beaten the conference-champion Kansas City Wizards, 2-0, Sunday to finish the regular season at 16-16. "We thought we could finish first. Now that we're in second, we just know we can do it. There's nothing that can stop us."
The Burn also ended the regular season with a .500 record and, like the Galaxy, netted 55 goals in its 32 games. But Dallas gave up 49 goals to the Galaxy's 44.
There is not much to choose between the teams. The Galaxy has the home-field advantage, which would have given it an edge, but the absence of Campos and Cienfuegos offsets that.
Dallas has a trio of talented Americans in goalkeeper Mark Dodd, striker Dante Washington and forward Jason Kreis, but its only foreign player of note is Mexico's Damian. Swiss midfielder Alain Sutter has been a flop.
The best-of-three series opens at the Rose Bowl at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, then switches to the Cotton Bowl on Oct. 8. If a third game is necessary, it will be at the Rose Bowl on Oct. 11. Campos will miss that one too, since Mexico plays Canada the next afternoon in a World Cup qualifier.
The Galaxy is the hotter team at the moment, having won 10 of its last 15 games and six in a row. Dallas is coming off a pair of losses, including one to the Galaxy last Friday.
"The playoff atmosphere is always tough," said Galaxy midfielder Chris Armas. "Every team wants to get to that final [championship] game, us especially. We have a bad taste in our mouths from last year [when the Galaxy lost the final to Washington D.C. United, 3-2].
The Burn is the first roadblock in the Galaxy's way.
Dallas Coach Dave Dir won consecutive A-League titles with the Colorado Foxes before being named coach of the Burn. He knows Los Angeles' strengths and weaknesses.
"We know the Galaxy can pass the ball, but usually they have a lot of trouble finishing," he said. "If you can withstand the storms that they throw forward and you can get a couple of counterattack goals, it seems to work very well against them. It has all season."
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(All Series Best of Three)
* Galaxy vs. Dallas
* Sunday: Rose Bowl, 4:30 p.m.
* Oct. 8: at Dallas, 5:30 p.m.
* Oct. 11: Rose Bowl, 7:30 p.m.
* Kansas City vs. Colorado
* Washington D.C. vs. New England
* Tampa Bay vs. Columbus