GALAXY: One more step to take
November, 7, 2011
By Scott French | ESPNLosAngeles.com
Kelvin Kuo/US PresswireThe Galaxy celebrate their MLS Western Conference title after beating Real Salt Lake 3-1.
CARSON, Calif. -- Bruce Arena credited the luck of the Irish. David Beckham cited something Mike Magee's father told him. Landon Donovan noted that L.A.'s aim was to put as much pressure on Real Salt Lake's center backs as it possibly could.
Add it all up, throw in a few more things -- Robbie Keane's tremendous movement and Josh Saunders' superb reactions -- and the Galaxy is headed to the MLS Cup, just like Tim Leiweke promised when he teased season-ticket holders nine months ago, before the league had said a thing, that Major League Soccer's championship game was coming to the Home Depot Center.
This will be the fifth time MLS' showcase game is played on the Galaxy's home field and the first time the Galaxy will be taking part.
“Let me tell you,” Arena said after L.A.'s 3-1 triumph over RSL in Sunday night's Western Conference final at Home Depot Center, “it wasn't the most comfortable feeling knowing that we were going to be the hosting the final and going through the season [with that over our heads]. ... I must tell you, there was a little pressure to get there.”
They did so by switching things up. Rather than battling RSL for midfield dominance, seeing who could possess and making the other team chase, the Galaxy relied on a direct attack meant to test ailing center back Jamison Olave, who got the nod after faring well enough in a pregame fitness test for RSL, and his youthful partner, Chris Schuler.
It led to a flurry of chances, one leading to Donovan's first-half penalty kick, and then second-half goals by Magee and Keane as L.A. pulled away to set up a Nov. 20 meeting with then Houston Dynamo at HDC.
Magee's 58th-minute header, his third finish from a Beckham ball in as many postseason games, broke a 1-1 draw, and Keane's strike in the 68th, after a long sprint against Olave, secured L.A.'s seventh MLS Cup appearance and second in three full seasons under Arena.
“It's maybe the luck of the Irish,” Arena said afterward. “I would assume Magee's Irish, right? I don't even know.”
Yes, he is, on both sides, and he acknowledged he used to throw a faux Irish accent around the locker room before Keane, a real Irishman, arrived in August.
“I was just walking around like I was the Irish guy on the team,” Magee said, “but he saw right through me.”
His goal was a beauty, closing a thrilling sequence that saw the ball move quickly from the right flank across to the left and then back to the right, where Beckham sent a ball to the far post as Keane's run to the near post dragged Olave and Schuler away from the play. That left an open channel for Magee, who threw himself at the ball, heading it sharply into the net.
“He's on fire,” Beckham said. “His dad said to me the other night: 'You keep finding his head.' And he's right. ... Dads are always right.”
Olave and Nat Borchers, the other first-choice center back, also dealing with a quadriceps injury, both pushed themselves in pregame tests, and RSL coach Jason Kreis said they were “equally as close” but that “Nat felt a little more hesitant about playing, and that's why we chose to go with Olave.”
The big Colombian, MLS's Defender of the Year last season, was up for it. He was a beast in the back, like always, contributed in the attack -- aggressively getting to Javier Morales' corner kick two minutes after Donovan's spot kick provided L.A. an early lead to set up Alvaro Saborio's header -- and gamely tracked Keane for 30 yards or so before the Irish striker netted the final goal.
Rather than battling for possession -- RSL held the ball nearly 60 percent of the game, according to MLS's stats -- L.A. sent long balls over the top, looking to send Keane or Chad Barrett or Donovan up against Olave and Schuler.
“We knew that Olave would struggle,” Donovan said. “We knew if him or Borchers or both of them played, that they would be hindered, and we wanted to get after them early and often. Schuler did well, but he's still inexperienced, and this is as big a game as he's played.
“So we wanted to put them under pressure and make them make decisions, and I think it paid off.”
The Galaxy might have had more -- Keane hit the post again, the third straight game in which he has done so (“Not too sure I've hit the post three games in a row, to be honest with you,” he said), and twice skipped balls just past a post. Barrett and Magee had chances that didn't fall.
Then once Magee scored, RSL had to push forward, and that left lots of space to exploit. The Galaxy, which used to rely so heavily on counterattacks, quickly took command.
“After Mike scored, they had to press the game, and they put a lot of numbers forward, but we did an excellent job when we did win the ball of making the first pass forward into someone's feet, where we could make plays,” Donovan explained. “It's a dangerous game to play with us, with the ability that we have throughout midfield [and] with Robbie and the way Chad was playing.
“If you play that game with us, you're likely going to get burned.”
RSL captain Kyle Beckerman knew it was over before it was over.
“We missed a breakaway about the 80th minute, sometime in the 80s [when Fabian Espindola whiffed with an open net],” he said. “I knew that was it. This wasn't our night tonight. But we didn't quit, which was good, and kept going for it, and we made Saunders make quite a few good saves. You know, we asked the question, and they answered it.”
The Galaxy got a trophy, too, but know what it means? Not a whole lot.
“We haven't achieved what we want yet,” Donovan said, “but we've taken all the right steps.”
Said Magee: “It means nothing if we don't win our next game. It's still a big win, big win for the club, but it's not what we're really looking for. We want more out of ourselves.”