The biggest question about Sunday's Western Conference final concerns the statuses of Real Salt Lake's Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers, two of Major League Soccer's finest center backs.
Both departed the Utahns' playoff opener last weekend against Seattle with quadriceps injuries and sat out Wednesday's second leg, a 2-0 defeat that sent RSL through to meet the Galaxy on Sunday evening at Home Depot Center.
Reserve Chris Schuler and left back Chris Wingert stepped into their shoes and fared reasonably well in Wednesday's defeat, which wasn't enough to overturn RSL's 3-0 lead from the first leg, but they're not Olave and Borchers and never will be.
RSL technical director/general manager Garth Lagerwey said Friday afternoon on a media conference call that he wasn't sure if Olave and Borchers would be ready to go by 6 p.m. Sunday.
“We just don't know,” he said. “There's muscle stuff, and obviously we elected to hold them off Wednesday. They'll be on the flight tonight to L.A., the team doctor is going with us to provide around-the-clock care ... it's going to be a close decision on game day.”
Olave was MLS's Defender of the Year last year, when the smart vote went to Borchers, who was a finalist -- along with Galaxy center back Omar Gonzalez. All three are among contenders for the award again this season.
Lagerwey was pleased with Schuler, a second-year defender out of Creighton, and Wingert, an eighth-round veteran who last played in the middle during his college days at St. John's.
“You're not going to come under more pressure than we did in Seattle,” Lagerwey said. “It was a baptism by fire, and we're going to be hit any harder. Those guys won dozens of battles all night long.”
Robbie Russell, having a fine year at right back, was the only regular in the right place on the backline. Former UC Santa Barbara standout Tony Beltran came up big at left back, making a leaping headed save to prevent Jeff Parke from scoring in the first half.
Galaxy coach Bruce Arena was asked later on the call how it would impact the game if neither Olave nor Borchers could go.
“Obviously, they're a little more experienced than the combination of Schuler and Wingert, but any way Salt Lake winds up in the back, they've got a good group,” he said. “Obviously, Olave and Borchers are among the best center backs in the league, and I'll be honest, I expect them to play. And if not, I don't see the level dropping a whole lot.”