MLS PLAYOFFS: What are the L.A.-RSL keys?
With the Galaxy in the MLS playoffs, we'll try to answer some of the pertinent questions as the postseason moves on.
The Galaxy needs one more win to advance to a record seventh MLS Cup final, and it isn't going to come easy, no matter what the situation is with Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave.
They take on Real Salt Lake in Sunday evening's Western Conference final at Home Depot Center, a rematch of the 2009 MLS Cup title game the Utahns won on penalties. It's a showdown between Major League Soccer's best team (the Galaxy, winner of successive Supporters' Shields as regular-season champ) and the side that at season's start was playing the most stylish and effective soccer the league has ever seen (RSL, until a crushing loss and major injury sent it spiraling).
What's going to decide this one? What are the keys?
Here are three:
1. Possession is paramount: Both of these teams prefer to hold onto the ball, move it around, force their opponents to grow weary chasing the play, and which ever is more successful at it is going to dictate the terms.
The Galaxy saw that in the first meeting, a 4-1 RSL romp over a side that was missing Landon Donovan. The Lions repeatedly put together double-digit strings of passes, carving up the L.A. backline in a performance that deserved eight, maybe 10 goals.
With Javier Morales back from a devastating ankle injury and Kyle Beckerman setting a foundation in front of the back four, RSL's midfield is a tricky proposition.
“They're really unpredictable,” Galaxy left back Todd Dunivant said. “It's hard to get one-on-one matchups with them because they're moving all over the place, so it's hard to really find where their guys are. That makes it difficult on defenses, and when you get defenses second-guessing themselves and their decisions, you're going to put people in bad positions and punish them, and that's what Salt Lake does well.”
RSL figures if it plays its game, it'll be in charge.
“If we get in our rhythm and get what we do well down, then we take away the advantage of their good players,” said Beckerman, the RSL captain. “Their good players then have to play defense. We don't go into a game saying, 'OK, this what we got to try to defend, this what we have to do.' We go in trying to play the way we play, and then that will take care of their dangerous players.”
2. Beckham's service: David Beckham does one thing better than anyone else in MLS, maybe on the planet: Deliver a ball. And that's a big part of why the Galaxy is America's premier team. If they can use his right foot to best advantage, simple, nothing stops them.
Key is winning dangerous set pieces, corner kicks and free kicks around RSL's box, which will put heavy pressure on a Real Salt Lake backline that could be missing both first-choice center backs. Also crucial is making sure Beckham has time and space in the run of play -- he likes to sit deep, get the ball on his foot, and swing a telling long ball onto teammates' paths.
RSL will do everything to try do deny him the opportunity to do so.
“I think we put somebody on Beckham and limit him having the ball at his feet, our chances of being organized in the back are better,” Lions goalkeeper Nick Rimando said. “Once he has the ball and looks up and has Landon going down[field], [Robbie Keane and Chad] Barrett making runs, that's when we get in trouble. If we drop off or stay high -- there's a lot of things we've got to take into account, and Beckham is the one who makes them tick, for sure.”
3. Borchers and Olave: This really is the game.
RSL has two of the finest center backs in the league. Olave was MLS Defender of the Year last year, and a lot of us thought Borchers should have won the award. Either or both could be finalists for the honor again this season.
If they're healthy and in the lineup, the Utahns might have the edge, even on the road. But they're not healthy and there's a decent chance they won't be in the lineup, with Borchers a better bet than his Colombian partner.
“It changes them, absolutely. It affects them,” Dunivant said. “If they're not in there, they have guys who can fill in, but they're not the same.”
Both have quad injuries, and even if one or both play, they will surely be limited. If Beckham is able to pull some strings, RSL could find themselves in trouble very quickly.
Are the Galaxy favorites?
If not the Galaxy, then who?
Who could be L.A.'s wild card?
What's with this playoff format?
How have Shield winners fared?
What must L.A. do to beat New York in the first round?