L.A., RSL are best in the West
The closest that David Beckham has come to garnering silverware in MLS was two years ago when the L.A. Galaxy lost the 2009 MLS Cup final on penalties. The opponent that day was none other than Real Salt Lake, and this Sunday, RSL will once again attempt to thwart the Galaxy's quest to win the championship that has proved so elusive in the Beckham era.
Given that the game pits the first-place and third-place finishers in the overall standings, it's a matchup fit for a final. RSL took apart the Galaxy 4-1 early in the season at Rio Tinto Stadium, and L.A. prevailed in the return matchup 2-1.
Key matchup: A battle of the midfields
RSL is in a race against time to see if center backs Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers will be able to play after sustaining quadriceps injuries in the first leg against Seattle. But regardless of whether the duo is able to perform, the midfield is where this game will be won and lost.
The big challenge for RSL is finding a way to knock Beckham off his game. The Englishman often drops deep to pick up the ball and then distributes, and his ferocious work rate can make him difficult to pick up in the attacking half. Juninho, Beckham's sidekick in the middle, has the ability to contribute on both sides of the ball, which is vital to the Galaxy. Landon Donovan hasn't been terribly effective in the attacking half of late, but remains a danger with his late runs, and his defense remains top-notch.
The key to RSL's midfield is the rapidity with which players switch roles. Javier Morales will often set up shop on the wing while Will Johnson and Andy Williams tuck inside, so L.A. will need to be constantly aware of the Argentine's whereabouts. Kyle Beckerman remains the glue that keeps RSL together. His defense will be critical Sunday, especially if RSL is forced to go with the makeshift center-back pairing of Chris Schuler and Chris Wingert.
Saunders started out the year as the backup to Donovan Ricketts, but eventually took hold of the starting spot after the Jamaican went down injured. Saunders is a solid shot-stopper but is prone to the odd mistake, especially when he comes off his line. Gonzalez has enjoyed a banner season but looked a tad suspect in the second-leg victory against New York, as he struggled to cope with the pace of Red Bulls forward Luke Rodgers. Gonzalez will face another tricky forward on Sunday in the form of L.A.'s Fabian Espindola. Keane is still short of full fitness after struggling with a hip adductor injury, but he looked lively in the second leg against New York, and twice came close to finding the net, only to be denied by some stellar goalkeeping. His off-the-ball movement remains an underrated component of L.A.'s attack.
Rimando's experience gives RSL a significant edge in goal, especially if the team is forced to field a makeshift back line. His prowess in penalty-kick shootouts is another plus. Saborio is a mercurial figure who can either be lights-out, like during the first leg when he scored twice, or completely invisible. At minimum, his hold-up play will be needed to help RSL keep possession, something he struggled with in the second leg against Seattle. Espindola is Real's attacking wild card; he's willing to take opponents off the dribble and also uses his impressive speed to get behind defenses.
X factors: L.A. midfielder Mike Magee and RSL's central defense
Magee is often the forgotten member of L.A.'s midfield, but he popped up for two critical goals in the series against New York. Donovan calls him "the best finisher on the team" and Magee has proved adept with both his head and his feet. His current form should allow the likes of Beckham and Donovan a bit more space in the attacking half.
If Borchers and Olave are able to play, that will give RSL a huge boost. But as of Friday, general manager Garth Lagerwey said "we just don't know" if the duo will be able to go, so Schuler and Wingert could get the nod. The good news is that the two stand-ins held up well against a nonstop barrage against Seattle in the second leg. As Lagerwey put it, "They couldn't have been put under any more pressure." But there were mistakes, as well, and L.A. excels at exploiting those kinds of moments.
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There are intriguing matchups all over the field. RSL's attack looks to have more weapons, especially up top where the combination of Saborio and Espindola has been potent over the course of the season. But L.A. is the better defensive side. Gonzalez provides the muscle, A.J. DeLaGarza and Sean Franklin provide the speed, and Todd Dunivant adds a steady veteran presence.
The midfields seem set to cancel each other out, with both teams excelling on both sides of the ball.
So who will win? Real is more than talented enough to come out on top. Coach Jason Kreis' side is at its best when it has a chip on its shoulder, and it wears the underdog tag well. Players like Morales, Espindola and Saborio are all capable of winning matches on their own.
But the uncertainty along RSL's back line and L.A.'s home-field advantage tip the scales ever so slightly in the Galaxy's favor. L.A. has also proved to be adept at grinding out results this year. Look for the Galaxy to be pushed into extra time, but ultimately prevail 2-1.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at email@example.com.
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