Photo by ISIPhotos.com
BY KAYLA KNAPP
CARSON, Calif. — The first time the Los Angeles Galaxy faced Real Salt Lake this year was in the 2012 season opener, where they were handed a tough 3-1 loss at the Home Depot Center. Not exactly the way the reigning MLS Cup Champions were hoping to start the defense of their title.
When a struggling Galaxy faced Salt Lake again in June, it was a far different outcome. They came back from down two goals to win at Rio Tinto Stadium to win 3-2, and kick start their surge of the Western Conference table.
“[We] beat Salt Lake, and came back and started really going on a tear,” Galaxy captain Landon Donovan said of the win at RSL in June. “I think it gave us some belief to go there and get a result like that after being down 2-0. It’s a big feat, and what really helps is if we play them in the playoffs, we have the belief that we can go there and do that again so that’s good.”
“We’ve set ourselves up well. We’ve got to finish it off now,” defender Todd Dunivant said after training on Thursday. “Three months ago you wouldn’t have thought, a lot of people didn’t think we could be in this position, but we always believed and we knew we had a good team and we stuck together. And the club has stuck by us, and I think we’ve rewarded that faith with some good results.”
Now, the Galaxy welcome RSL back to the Home Depot Center for their final clash of the regular season in a match that will be likely be a preview of what we can expect to see when the playoffs begin next month. The teams sit second and third in the Western Conference, with Salt Lake just two points ahead of Los Angeles.
“They’re a good team all-around,” Dunivant said. “Over the years they’ve been very good defensively, and part of that is the way they keep the ball and limiting your chances, and their midfield is the key to that.”
“They don’t change much,” head coach Bruce Arena said of Salt Lake. “They are who they are, they’ve pretty much had this group of players for a number of years – they’re not a team you have to do a whole lot of scouting on. You pretty much know their lineup, their characteristics of the players and their style.”
While RSL may have stayed consistent through the last few years, it doesn’t make the challenge any less difficult – especially since the Galaxy will have to face them without center back AJ DeLaGarza, who is out for at least the remainder of the regular season with a left knee sprain.
“We haven’t had this where AJ’s been out, he’s been real reliable for us and has been in there so we’ve been working this week in practice on getting that right,” Dunivant said. “Certainly it’s not going to be easy without him, he’s a huge part of our defense and a key cog in that four. We’re going to have to not use it as an excuse and really just plow forward.”
“[AJ] and Omar have a pretty special partnership, as good as any in the league, in the way they understand each other,” Donovan said. “And now Omar’s going to have to pull some of these other guys along with him. How much it affects us, we’ll see. We’re confident that we have a number of good defenders that can step in.”
While DeLaGarza aims to be back for the playoffs, the Galaxy will have to face some of their toughest opponents – Salt Lake, San Jose Earthquakes and Seattle Sounders – without him.
STRETCH RUN A TOUGH TEST
The final games of the regular season will determine where the Galaxy land in the final standings, and while the Earthquakes are impossible to catch, second place in the West is very much a possibility.
“We’ve only got three games left and they’re against three teams that we’re battling for playoff position for, we can’t ask for anything more than that really,” Dunvant said. “Certainly not easy, but you’d have it no other way – that’s the way we made up ground this season was beating Western Conference teams, climbing the table quickly that way and now we have a chance again to play teams that are right there with us for the second, third and fourth spot and that’s going to be important.”
This stretch will not only determine playoff positioning, but is a solid test of how the Galaxy will stack up against some of the top teams in the league heading into the post-season.
“If you look at teams we’re playing, they’re some of the teams that we could get, so it’s going to be three tough games, we know that, they’re good teams,” Robbie Keane said after Thursday’s training session. “We’ll get these out of the way and refocus on the playoffs, but we obviously want to finish as high as we can. From now until hopefully the final, there’s not going to be too many easy games.”
WILHELMSSON OPTIMISTIC FOR SATURDAY
The newest addition to the Galaxy roster, Swedish international Christian Wilhelmsson, had his first full training session since picking up an injury to his left calf in training last week. The winger said he’ll be available for Saturday’s match, but was also cautious about his return.
“Every time you’re injured or something , you just want to get back as soon as possible but you cannot rush it, you cannot hurry because you get maybe injured again,” Wilhelmsson said. “You have to take care; the body tells you how fast you can do it.”