The MLS Western Conference final Sunday (TV: ESPN2/Deportes, 9 p.m. ET) matches Los Angeles and Real Salt Lake nearly two years after RSL beat the Galaxy on penalty kicks in MLS Cup 2009.
Probably no team in MLS could seriously ponder playing the Galaxy at Home Depot Center without its starting centerbacks and winning anyway.
Not until game time will it be known if RSL head coach Jason Kreis can deploy perhaps the best tandem in MLS, but in most regards, his team is poised to upend the Galaxy’s quest to finish its playoffs on its home field.
Playmaker Javier Morales has come back from a long injury layoff, forward Fabian Espindola is at his rugged, relentless best, and striker Alvaro Saborio has regained the sharp shooting touch that lit up MLS and the CONCACAF Champions League last year. He finished the season with 11 goals – only one fewer than his total last year – and hit two past Seattle goalie Kasey Keller in the 3-0 victory in the first leg of the conference semifinals.
The Galaxy doesn’t need reminding of what Morales means to RSL’s attack. He scored twice in the 4-1 thumping handed out by RSL at Rio Tinto Stadium on March 26. Though the Galaxy won the return game, 2-1, at HDC Oct. 1, it had to rally from a 1-0 deficit inflicted by Espindola -- with Morales assisting on a corner kick in his first appearance for nearly five months -- and got the winner on a Borchers own goal.
Still, a few important factors lean in the Galaxy’s favor. Head coach Bruce Arena said he expects centerbacks Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers, both bothered by strained quadriceps, to play. If they aren’t at full sharpness, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane could carve out gaps with interchanging runs and combination play.
That might drag holding mid Kyle Beckerman deeper to help out, which would open up space in the middle for David Beckham and Juninho, who missed the second leg against New York because of the red card he received for scuffling at the end of the first game.
If hobbled, the RSL centerbacks will also be vulnerable to Beckham’s set-play deliveries, which have set up both playoff goals scored by Mike Magee. (He also scored the Galaxy's MLS Cup goal against RSL two years ago.)
For RSL, the key figures are the wide midfielders. Will Johnson will take one spot, Kreis can opt for more offense in the other slot with Andy Williams, or the rugged ball-winning of Ned Grabavoy. Yet Williams has put in some capable defensive shifts this season and Grabavoy’s strike in the first leg of the conference semis against Seattle turned out to be the deciding goal in that 3-2 aggregate victory. They will have to keep track of Magee, who floats into different areas of the field to play off of his teammates.
If the RSL outside mids can buttress the middle third and also supply good service to Morales and the forwards, much of the Galaxy’s attacking impetus will be neutralized. Since the RSL wide mids often tuck in, Los Angeles left back Todd Dunivant could be a crucial element with his swerving left-footed lobs and balls played up the flank for Magee and the forwards.
Spoiling the Galaxy’s backyard picnic, as savory as that accomplishment would be, won’t greatly enhance RSL’s desire to win this game. Its players have been stewing for more than six months about a bitter loss to Monterrey in the CONCACAF Champions League finals, 3-2, on aggregate, and as their coach admits, this opportunity is redemption calling.
“I think it should be very, very good motivation,” says Kreis. “It’s not often where you get second chances in this world and even less often you get second chances in this game. For us to have the exact same team we had in that CONCACAF final in 2011, now this is a new opportunity for our players to perhaps make amends for that and win something extremely meaningful in 2011.”
They won’t hit the finish line by beating the Galaxy at HDC Sunday, but will earn a return trip in two weeks’ time.
For the Galaxy and its fans, falling at the penultimate hurdle would be a painful repeat of last year's stumble as Supporters' Shield winner against Dallas at the same stage. And losing to RSL would bring back nightmares of the 2009 MLS Cup shootout, in which Donovan's PK miss broke a long string of successful kicks.
As clasicos go, it should measure up.