By TYLER GRAY and MARC SERBER
This Western Conference Semifinals matchup is between two teams who know each other very well.
Ever since the 2009 MLS cup final, these two squads have been pretty much dead even in their head-to-head matchups including a couple in the postseason as well. The Los Angles Galaxy have the edge with 11 wins to Real Salt Lake’s 10, as well as six ties all-time in MLS competition.
There is a healthy amount of respect between the players and also the head coaches. RSL head coach Jason Kreis was effusive in his praise of the Galaxy and their head coach Bruce Arena during a Thursday afternoon media conference call.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Bruce is the best coach in the history of soccer in this country.”
While the one-four playoff matchup of Cascadia rivals Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders might get most of the media attention, RSL and LA might provide the more intriguing tactical matchup with the possession-oriented style of RSL facing off against the quick-strike counterattacking style of the two-time defending champions.
Here’s a closer look at this playoff series:
SEASON SERIES - Galaxy won season series, 2-1-0
The Galaxy have the edge in the season series beating RSL two out of three times including a 2-0 victory with a lineup missing Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and Omar Gonzalez at the beginning of the season at Rio Tinto.
RSL took the second match 3-1 thanks to a breakout performance from young striker Olmes Garcia. The Galaxy got the last laugh, however, when they overwhelmed RSL 4-2 at the Stub Hub Center on the strength of a Keane hat trick.
PLAYERS TO WATCH – GALAXY: Robbie Keane (16 goals, 11 assists), Landon Donovan (10 goals, 9 assists), Omar Gonzalez (1 goal, 2 assists). RSL: Alvaro Saborio (12 goals, 2 assists), Javier Morales (8 goals, 10 asissts), and Nick Rimando (14 wins, nine shutouts).
For the Galaxy it has to be the red-hot Keane who is a strong favorite for MLS’ MVP, notching 16 goals and 11 assists for the season. The last time these two teams met the Irish international absolutely abused RSL rookie centerback Carlos Salcedo who had filled in admirably up to that point. Keane will be a handful for the RSL back line and everyone will be watching to see what he will do next.
RSL will look to Alvaro Saborio to have a strong performance Sunday night after an up-and-down 2013 season. RSL’s all-time goalscoring leader has only appeared in 16 games due to injuries and international callups. He has, however, been lethal in his limited opportunities scoring 12 goals and contributing two assists. RSL hope that Saborio can pick up where he left off and put the ball in the back of the net. When the Costa Rican scores, RSL is 31-5-6.
MATCH-UP TO WATCH
The midfield will be the place to keep an eye on Sunday night. The central tandem of Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas has been incredibly effective for the Galaxy all season long. RSL’s Javier Morales has had a resurgent year and the interchangeable parts that are Ned Grabavoy and Luis Gil will be a handful for LA. RSL look to keep possession and find opportunities for goals and it will be up to Sarvas and Juninho to shut them down.
It’s not an incredibly sexy choice, but RSL’s Chris Schuler will be the difference for an RSL backline that looked completely outmatched the last time these two teams met. Schuler, since being back from injury, has been a revelation for the defense. The backline has looked much more confident and composed with the St. Louis native back on the field, letting in a goal only every 96 minutes.
With so much depending on the Galaxy and RSL forwards, the Galaxy “X factor” could very well be the play of the center backs. Despite his success, its been a trying year for LA’s Omar Gonzalez who is enduring his first full season of dealing with domestic and International soccer. He has two good candidates to partner him in both Leonardo and Kofi Opare, the rookie out of the University of Michigan who came on to great effect towards the end of the season.
By Tyler Gray
This is a battle between two of the most consistent teams in all of MLS.
The Galaxy are back-to-back MLS Cup champions and know what it takes to make it all the way. RSL haven’t missed the playoffs in five straight years but have struggled recently in high-pressure matches.
Arena, on a conference call Thursday afternoon noted that RSL is a very experienced team.
“As usual they have a very good team and they’re solid all over the field,” Arena said. “Nick Rimando has been great for them all year. They’ve got a nice team, an experienced team, a team that’s very talented.”
Kreis fired right back with some praise of his own, explaining that despite some inconsistencies throughout the season, the Galaxy are always a dangerous team.
“We always have to be concerned with the potential of a team like LA,” Kreis said. “We have to be worried about their potential, not what we’ve seen recently.”
Despite the surprising lack of bulletin board material, these two matches will be intense. The last time these two teams met in the playoffs, LA knocked out RSL 3-1 in the Western Conference finals on their way to their third MLS championship. It was a small measure of payback for the 2009 defeat the Galaxy suffered in the finals at then Century Link Field in Seattle.
Keane, Donovan and Co. will be keyed in on securing a three peat but RSL will have a second chance to spoil LA’s path to the championship.
The match is set to kick off at 9 pm ET from Stub Hub Center on Sunday night. You can catch all the action on ESPN. The second leg will be Thursday night.
By Marc Serber
Despite LA taking the season series two games to one, it was RSL who finished three points higher in the table.
In one of the tightest MLS regular seasons ever, The Claret and Cobalt used a silky passing game to finish just one point behind Western Conference Champions Portland. Their tally of 57 goals falling just one shy of the New York Red Bulls who pipped them to the supporters shield by three points.
Speaking of goals, a healthy Saborio will be key to the RSL attack. Despite sustaining injuries on two separate occasions and missing even more time while on international duty with Costa Rica, Saborio still managed to lead the Utah side in scoring with 12 goals in just 16 appearances.
“When he’s been out there, he’s been very effective.” RSL head coach Jason Kreis told a group of journalists during a teleconference. “You can see that with the number of goals he’s scored for us versus the number of games this season. So I think he’s headed in the right direction.”
Kreis also believes his star forward has the right mentality to go with his goal scoring exploits heading into the battle with LA.
“I think we saw him in that very last game with Costa Rica against Mexico, we saw a guy that was extremely hungry and willing to do anything that was necessary for his team. So were expecting the same mentality from him going into this playoff series. That he’ll be willing to do anything to try and help us win.”
With the two teams scoring 12 goals in their three matches its no surprise that the man to keep an eye on for LA is a striker as well. Keane hit a hat-trick the last time the two sides met and the Irish international is a strong candidate for this season’s MVP award.
While Kreis admits that Keane is a huge worry and that he and Donovan are most likely the best forward tandem in MLS, LA Galaxy coach Bruce Arena says that it really started to click for his club at the beginning of August.
That’s when he finally got the majority of his squad back from injuries and international duty. It was then that the decision was made to move some players around during the friendlies in the International Champions Cup this summer.
“If we were going to play Landon [Donovan] and Robbie [Keane] together as forwards we had to make a decision as what to do with Gyasi [Zardes], “ the Galaxy coach said, “and we made the decision to play him in the midfield, which was big for our team.”