If the Galaxy needs a cautionary tale heading into Sunday's decisive Western Conference playoff game with the Seattle Sounders, it must look no further than last week's Eastern Conference semifinal between the New York Red Bulls and San Jose Earthquakes.
The Red Bulls, like the Galaxy, won their conference. Like the Galaxy they entered the playoffs top-seeded and, like the Galaxy, they took the first match of the two-game semifinal 1-0 on the road.
Then New York came home needing just a tie to advance, only to see its season ended when it was blown out, 3-1.
"If you don't show up to play, then yeah, it can happen," said Galaxy captain Landon Donovan. "It's always nice to have a goal advantage coming home. But in our playoffs, the way it's set up, there's no real advantage."
That's because the first round of the Major League Soccer playoffs is a two-game home-and-home series decided by aggregate goals, meaning whoever has the most scores at the end of 180 minutes moves on. If the teams are still tied after two regulation-length games, they play a 30-minute overtime and if they're tied after that, the winner is decided on penalty kicks.
It's a merciless way to do business, but those are the rules. So the Galaxy's 1-0 win last week in Seattle means it enters Sunday's second game with what amounts to a precarious 1-0 halftime lead.
"Sure," Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena conceded. "[But] I'd still rather be ahead by a goal than down a goal."
Especially given the fact the Galaxy is 17-1-0 after taking a 1-0 lead this season. Also given the way the short-handed Galaxy defense played in the playoff opener. Todd Dunivant, who started 27 regular-season games, was scratched just hours before kickoff because of a hamstring injury. Seldom-used veteran Eddie Lewis started in his place and, with midfielders Donovan and David Beckham dropping back to help defend, the Galaxy succeeded in slowing Seattle's speedy wingers.
Even when the wingers got loose, though, they had to contend with goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, who made a season-high eight saves — some in spectacular fashion.
"He was the difference in the game," Arena said.
Arena pronounced Dunivant ready for Sunday's match but said he might wait until kickoff again before deciding on a lineup. He wasn't much more revealing about his game plan, taking the unusual step of closing Friday's practice to the media.
"Everything is based on how the game's going," he said. "It's based on the conditions in the game and what you need to do to win."
Seattle Coach Sigi Schmid was equally cautious, saying the first few minutes of Sunday's game will help determine his team's approach. If Donovan and Beckham continue to drop deep to play defense, Schmid said the Sounders will have to do a better job breaking them down rather than simply firing long balls into the Galaxy end.
"All you can do is create chances," said Schmid, whose team was the hottest in MLS over the second half of the regular season, losing only two of its final 14 matches. But the Sounders haven't scored in 300 postseason minutes dating to its inaugural season last year, which doesn't bode well for a team that's trailing.
"Obviously, I'm disappointed in our inability to finish," he said. "It hasn't bounced our way, but that can change."
Or not. Either way, he shouldn't expect to catch the Galaxy acting overconfident. Not after what happened to New York.
"We have to be aware of that," Beckham said. "Going into the game on Sunday, we know that we've got a 1-nil advantage but it doesn't mean anything.
"We have to play well and we have to play well on Sunday."