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Playoffs start early for Galaxy

Bruce Arena had already begun making plans for the Galaxy’s playoff opener in Denver. Landon Donovan was thankful he’d get a day off.

Then Real Salt Lake completed the most audacious comeback of the Major League Soccer season, scoring twice in stoppage -- both by Alvaro Saborio, the first following a horrid error by Colorado Rapids goalkeeper Matt Pickens, the second on a last-ditch penalty kick -- for a 2-2 tie Saturday night, and suddenly the Galaxy’s game Sunday against FC Dallas meant something.

L.A., needing at least a draw in the league finale to finally wrest the Western Conference and Supporters’ Shield titles from RSL, responded with one of its grittiest performances this season, pulling out a 2-1 victory at Home Depot Center in a match that, as Donovan put it, “felt and looked like a real playoff game.”

It might be exactly what the Galaxy (18-7-5) needed heading into a home-and-home series with the Seattle Sounders to start the MLS postseason. Their form has been hit and largely miss since a 10-0-2 start to the season, even while winning five of their final seven games, and Seattle has been close to spectacular in league play since July 4.

A REAL FIGHT: FC Dallas (12-4-14), which was going to finish third in the West no matter the result (but wasn’t certain whether their first-round opponent would be L.A. or RSL), put up a real fight, and the Galaxy couldn’t have been more pleased.

“Tonight we had to play against an excellent team in a tough, demanding game, and I think we needed this game,” Arena said after the Galaxy rallied from a deficit to win for just the second time this season. “We haven’t been in a game where we’ve been forced to win, forced to show up and play hard and fight and scrap for everything we could get, and we did it tonight. I’m real pleased, and that’s the kind of game that should give our team and players a lot of confidence as we go into [what will] be a real difficult playoff series with Seattle.”

Donovan concurred:

“I’m glad Dallas put as much into it as they did, because that felt and looked like a real playoff game, and that’s what it is going to look like for the next, hopefully, four weeks. We need to know what it takes. I think every guy in here [after the game in the locker room] that played is absolutely exhausted, and that’s exactly as it should be.”

‘NEED TO SEE MORE’: Donovan was outstanding for the Galaxy, playing with uncommon vigor and setting up both goals, by David Beckham in the 33rd minute and Juninho at the start of the second half. On the first, he manhandled Dallas defender Jackson Goncalves, pushing him out of the way while retrieving a ball to the left of the Hoops’ net.

“That’s the kind of plays we need to see more of out of Landon,” Arena said. “He’s a very experienced player -- he has the ability to make a lot of great plays. He’s mentally and physically ready to make those top plays. Tonight his concentration for many minutes in the game was terrific.

“We all know Landon can do that, so to see him have that effort -- not only that play but throughout the game -- was fantastic.”

BECKHAM’S BEST: Beckham, too, was at his best, giving his first truly two-way performance since returning from an Achilles’ tendon rupture that sidelined him for six months. Dema Kovalenko’s presence in midfield added a lot of bite, and central defenders (and former University of Maryland teammates) Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza were superb organizing the backline.

Anything less, and the Galaxy likely would have been beaten, and RSL would have won the West and the Shield -- and home-field advantage for the playoffs.

“I said this week I thought it was better for us if we had to earn it, rather than kind of backing into the [top spot], and winning by default,” defender Todd Dunivant said. “And it wouldn’t have been by default. We earned it all year. But winning the way we did, that’s a lot more satisfying.”

‘PHYSICALLY SICK’: Not everybody felt that way Saturday night. When the Rapids led RSL, 2-0, heading into stoppage -- a result that would have settled the trophies and the playoff picture -- Arena was calling a few regulars to let them know they’d have the night off and others that they’d get to play.

“I began making calls around the 88th, 89th, 90th minute -- I’ll be the first to admit it,” Arena said. “What can I say?”

Donovan said RSL’s comeback left him “sick to my stomach.”

“Selfishly, I was hoping I would get the day off today, and when I watched Pickens make that play [clearing the ball off Saborio, with the carom going off the crossbar and leaving the RSL forward an open net], my heart sank, and I knew at that time they were going to get another goal somehow.

“So I had a few minutes where I was literally physically sick.”

It couldn’t have turned out better.