Los Angeles Soccer: Chris Wingert
Olave, last year's MLS Defender of the Year, was considered the longer shot to start between RSL's first-choice center backs, who sustained quadriceps injuries in the Lions' playoff opener and missed Wednesday's decisive first-round leg in Seattle.
Both were on the HDC field testing their limits at about 4:30 p.m., and Olave -- a physical difference-maker in the back -- fared well enough to join Chris Schuler in the middle. Chris Wingert returns to his normal spot, at left back.
No surprises in the Galaxy XI. Here are the lineups:
Galaxy: Josh Saunders; Sean Franklin, Omar Gonzalez, A.J. DeLaGarza, Todd Dunivant; Landon Donovan, David Beckham, Juninho, Mike Magee; Chad Barrett, Robbie Keane. Bench: Chris Birchall, Paolo Cardozo, Adam Cristman, Frankie Hejduk, Donovan Ricketts, Dasan Robinson, Michael Stephens.
Real Salt Lake: Nick Rimando; Robbie Russell, Jamison Olave, Chris Schuler, Chris Wingert; Andy Williams, Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, Will Johnson; Fabian Espindola, Alvaro Saborio. Bench: Yordany Alvarez, Tony Beltran, Nat Borchers, Luis Gil, Ned Grabavoy, Paulo Jr., Kyle Reynish.
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.
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.”