CARSON -- The situation couldn't be more perfect for the Galaxy heading into Sunday's Western Conference title game.
They're at home (where they haven't lost all season), are as near to full strength as they've been at any point (Juninho's return from suspension a big plus), and can happily feast on a Real Salt Lake defense that might still be missing its anchors.
Scratch that last one.
Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave, the best center-back tandem in MLS, could be watching from the stands, but the Galaxy (21-5-10, including playoffs) won't get much joy from that, no matter how massively that alters the odds.
This is a proud bunch, believes they are the best team in MLS and knows the best way to prove that is to beat the best. And RSL isn't at its best if Borchers and Olave aren't a go.
As noted by Omar Gonzalez, the Galaxy's top center back: “I hope they are on the field, so we can have the best game possible.”
The team that best maintains possession and more aggressively conquers midfield is going to have the edge in the clash at Home Depot Center, but the task is considerably more difficult for Real Salt Lake (16-12-8) without the physical, dynamic Olave, a 30-year-old Colombian, and cerebral organizer Borchers, also 30, from Colorado.
“I've been reading stats all year that they write up every time one of them isn't in the game,” said Gonzalez, who joined the RSL pair on last year's MLS Best XI backline. “They give up almost no goals when they're both on the field, but when they're off the field, they seem to struggle a little bit.”
It's true. Since its 2009 MLS Cup triumph over the Galaxy, Real Salt Lake is 40-21-27 with Borchers and Olave in the middle and 11-14-6 using any other combination. The records this season: 10-4-8 and 6-8-0.
“Those two are arguably the best center-back pairing in the league,” Galaxy captain Landon Donovan said. “If one of them is out, it hurts them. If both of them are out, it certainly hurts them. [But RSL is] experienced, their midfield does a good job of getting around the ball, which relieves some of the pressure on their backline, and then they have a great goalkeeper [Montclair's Nick Rimando], too. Even if one of both of those two aren't on the field, it's still going to be a big challenge.”
Borchers and Olave exited with quadricep strains in the Lions' 3-0 rout in their first-round, first-leg victory over Seattle, and the difference was alarming in Wednesday's second leg, a 2-0 loss. Towering sophomore Chris Schuler and veteran left back Chris Wingert partnered inside and took the brunt of a very direct Sounders attack. Their teammates applauded them for their bravery under constant pressure, but RSL coach Jason Kreis wasn't satisfied.
“It's difficult [without Borchers and Olave],” Kreis said after RSL's training session Saturday on Chivas USA's practice field. “They're both very good players for us, both extremely important players in the position they play, with their leadership ability and their athletic ability and their soccer ability. It provides some problems for us, as we saw against Seattle. We had some problems there, but we got through it, and I think if [Schuler and Wingert] are asked to play in those positions, we'll expect improvement.”
“We've just got to be cleaner with some stuff. Too often the other night we were dealing with crosses just weren't clean with our clearances or weren't clean with the final pass out from those two players -- a lot of players, wasn't just the two center backs. We've got to do a better job of dealing with those two areas in particular ... because L.A.'s a very good team, and they have some guys that can play some decent crosses on their team, I think.”
A certain Mr. Beckham has a knack for that, and denying him the ability to serve in balls is going to critical. Not that Kreis would say so.
“I don't know that I'm going to go too much into that,” he said.
Borchers is considered further along is his recovery than Olave, and both of them participated in training Saturday. “They looked OK,” Kreis reported. “Both of them were able to do quite a bit, but having said that, I don't think either tested themselves to the capacity that they will need to test themselves to prove that they're ready for [Sunday's game].”
As training ended, Wingert was in the middle of the box, working on clearing crosses delivered by assistant coach C.J. Brown.
Kreis said decisions would wait on fitness tests 90 minutes before the game. Borchers said he isn't sure if he'll be ready.
“It's really going to come down,” he said, “to whether I can make those quick movements to cover ground, to close things down, to track runners and be a good defender.”
Either way, the game goes on.
“If they're in, we definitely have confidence and a swagger ...,” RSL captain Kyle Beckerman said. “Hopefully, they will be able to be there, but if not, we'll be able to adjust.”
WORTH NOTING: The winner will meet the winner of Sunday's Eastern Conference final, Houston Dynamo at Sporting Kansas City, in the Nov. 20 MLS Cup final at HDC. ... This is the Galaxy's 11th conference final (or league semifinal, under the 2000-02 format) in MLS's 17 years, and they've moved on to MLS Cup six times, winning two championships (in 2002 and 2005). In single-game conference finals, L.A. is 2-2, with wins at Colorado (2-0, in 2005) and against Houston (2-0 in overtime, in 2009) and losses at Kansas City (2-0, in 2004) and at home last year against FC Dallas (0-3). ... Real Salt Lake is in its third conference final in four years. In 2008, the Utahns lost to New York, 1-0, in the Western title game. The next year, they won on penalty kicks against Chicago in the Eastern final. ... In two more finals, RSL is 0-1-2. They won the 2009 MLS Cup on penalties after a 1-1 tie with the Galaxy in Seattle. In the CONCACAF Champions League final against Mexico's Monterrey earlier this season, RSL drew, 2-2, in the first leg and lost, 1-0, at home in the second. ...
RSL destroyed the Galaxy in the first meeting, a 4-1 decision (that should have been far worse) as Javier Morales scored twice March 26 in Sandy, Utah. The Galaxy rallied from a halftime deficit for a 2-1 win Oct. 1 at HDC. ... The all-time series is tied, 7-7-6. The Galaxy have won just twice in the past 11 meetings, dating to 2007, . ... L.A. is 6-3-1 against RSL at HDC, with wins in the last two meetings, both by 2-1 scorelines. ... The Galaxy is 16-0-6 in all first-team games at HDC this season. ... Donovan's penalty kick Thursday against New York was his 18th playoff goal, extending his MLS record. ... Real Salt Lake clinched a berth in next season's CONCACAF Champions League when the Galaxy beat New York in their first-round series. L.A. claimed a spot with the Supporters' Shield triumph.
MISSING: Central defenders Leonardo and Sean Alvarado (both torn ACLs) are out. ... David Beckham (back spasms), defender Gregg Berhalter (sprained foot) and defender/midfielder Bryan Jordan (ruptured finger tendon) are listed as questionable.
REAL SALT LAKE
A top MLS forward who never won a regular job with the U.S. national team, Kreis was MLS's first 100-goal man, retiring to take charge of RSL in 2007 with a then-record 108 strikes, now the No. 5 mark. He's an intense and demanding coach who has built RSL into MLS Cup champ (in 2009) and this year took the club to the CONCACAF Champions League final.
Three key players
Rimando is among the league's elite goalkeepers, a superb shot-stopper who ably organizes one of MLS's best backlines
Argentine playmaker Morales is among the league's elite players, a dynamic attacker who changes games -- and he's rounding into fine form after missing most of the season with a severe ankle injury.
Beckerman has played himself onto the U.S. national team as one of the league's premier holding midfielders, and his work this season leading RSL through and out of a difficult stretch makes him an MVP contender.
Real Salt Lake has been up and down since finding its form again in late summer, following a difficult few months that started with a demoralizing loss to Monterrey in the Champions League final and Morales' injury. The Lions have won just once in their last eight games, a 3-0 stunner over Seattle in their playoff opener, but is one of the most talented of the league's teams when at full strength. Forward Alvaro Saborio's form improved as the season proceeded, and Morales' return at the end of September gives them attacking tools otherwise missing. The injuries at the back are massive and could be enough on their own to derail RSL's bid.
Rimando played at Montclair High School and UCLA. Right back Tony Beltran is a neighbor -- he's from Claremont (Claremont HS) and also played at UCLA. ... Teen playmaker Luis Gil emerged from Santiago High School in Garden Grove. ... No. 2 goalkeeper Kyle Reynish, from Valencia, played at Hart High School and UC Santa Barbara. ... Midfielder Ned Grabavoy was with the Galaxy in 2004-05.
Midfielder Nelson Gonzalez (fractured foot) is out. ... Defender Blake Wagner (adductor strain) and forward Cody Arnoux (hamstring strain) are doubtful. ... Olave and Borchers are officially “questionable.”
At Home Depot Center (Carson), 6 p.m.
TV: ESPN and ESPN Deportes
Radio: K-Talk (KTLK-AM/1150, English) and ESPN Deportes (KWKU-AM/1220 and KWKW-AM/1330, both Spanish)
Referee: Jorge Gonzalez
POTENTIAL STARTING XI
Galaxy: Josh Saunders; Sean Franklin, Omar Gonzalez, A.J. DeLaGarza, Todd Dunivant; Landon Donovan, David Beckham, Juninho, Mike Magee; Chad Barrett, Robbie Keane.
Real Salt Lake: Nick Rimando; Chris Schuler, Chris Wingert, Tony Beltran; Andy Williams, Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, Will Johnson; Fabian Espindola, Alvaro Saborio.