Still nearly a month before the start of Major League Soccer's 2006 season, defending champions LA Galaxy are already behind the proverbial eight-ball ahead of the second leg of their CONCACAF Champions Cup quarter-final at Saprissa Stadium in San Jose, Costa Rica.
Failing to score at home on 22 February means the 2005 MLS holders will need to get a win (or at least a draw to force penalties on the pure aggregate format) on the road against Tico giants Deportivo Saprissa at their monumentally intimidating cauldron of Ricardo Saprissa Stadium. The capital ground - which hosts most of the Costa Rican national team's home matches - is known for its boisterous atmosphere and colourful crowds.
Landon Donovan and his side will be up against it to get a win and seal their place in the semi-final round of the 45-year-old regional club championship. Not only are Saprissa current holders of the CONCACAF Champions Cup and three-time winners, but the 2005 FIFA Club World Championship bronze winners have never lost to an MLS side on their home patch - now covered with artificial turf to make the home-field advantage all the more substantial.
"It's going to be absolute hell," said Donovan of the reception that awaits the Galaxy on the Costa Rican leg. "Perhaps not as bad as when the national team (USA) plays there - but it's going to be very tough."
In the first leg two weeks ago at the Home Depot Centre in Los Angeles, Landon Donovan and co. bossed the possession and dictated the pattern of play but were unable to complete their pre-game mantra of, "coming focussed and scoring as many goals as possible," as outlined by Jamaican international defender Tyrone Marshall.
"At the end of the day, we have to have more possession, more shots on goal. We have to believe in ourselves," stressed goalkeeper Kevin Hartman after the disappointing first leg in Los Angeles. "If we're whipping the ball into the box, something good might come of that."
The LA side looked good in stretches, but a combination of profligate finishing - understandable considering the side had not played a competitive match in nearly three months - and savvy defending from the visitors kept the score sheet clean and set up a mouth-watering second leg.
"It was a just result," was all Saprissa head coach and former Costa Rica hero Hernan Medford had to say following the first leg. Currently tied for a share of top spot in their section the Costa Rican Clausura, Saprissa - one of the nation's top teams historically speaking and financially - are never an easy proposition on their home pitch. They have not lost at their Ricardo Saprissa stadium all season and rarely do so.
With Cristian Bolanos leading the charge through midfield and striking sensation Ronald Gomez posing the scoring threat up front, Medford's men will be considering themselves hot favourites to seal their spot in the semi-finals with a win over the Donovan-led Galaxy on 8 March.
Despite Donovan's impressive form in the USA's five friendlies in 2006, the Galaxy's lack of cohesiveness proved telling in the first leg and the second is bound to be even more of a struggle for the California side.
One bright spot for the MLS outfit will be the return to fitness of one-time striker-turned-defender Chris Albright. The former University of Virginia star and US international is expected to be fit to start for Steve Sampson (who himself will be in for a reception as a former coach of the Costa Rican national team) on Wednesday night.
"When you come back from injuries like this the actual injury is fine - it's just nagging soreness coming back. I'm feeling good and close to 100 percent," Albright said. "If we feel that I'm ready, I'm going to go and give as much as I can. Hopefully that's the case."
Albright's return could not come at a better time for the LA squad as fellow fullback Todd Dunivant will be forced to watch from home with a strained thigh muscle.
Personnel issues aside, the odds are stacked heavily against the Galaxy as San Jose and a highly-motivated Saprissa outfit will be doing their all to take another step toward the Champions Cup final and one more time around at a FIFA Club World Championship.