Head-to-Head Breakdown: LA Galaxy vs. Real Salt Lake

The Galaxy came into the playoffs with a bit of a goalkeeper controversy. Donovan Ricketts, the reigning 2010 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, was fully recovered from a broken forearm that had sidelined him through much of the season, but his replacement, Josh Saunders, had been arguably the best 'keeper in the league since July. Bruce Arena tabbed Saunders for the playoffs, and it's been the right choice. The 30-year old's point-blank save on Joel Lindpere in the first leg of the Western Conference semis is probably the save of the playoffs, and he hasn't put a foot wrong through two games.

 

GOALKEEPERS

 

Nick Rimando is one of those "been there, done that" 'keepers in MLS. He's won two MLS Cups with two different teams, a pair of Supporters' Shields, and a handful of caps for the US national team as well. There's simply not much he hasn't seen, and that includes victory over the Galaxy in the most memorable of fashions: By penalty kick shootout in the 2009 MLS Cup final. He had a poor clearance in the second leg against Seattle, and that's the book on him: Expect the Galaxy to pump plenty of crosses into the box. But expect Rimando to deal with most of them with few problems.

Omar Gonzalez chose the wrong day to have his worst game of the year, finding himself undressed twice against RBNY in the second leg on Thursday. But it says something about the Galaxy that they were able to keep the Red Bulls to a single goal in spite of Gonzalez's off game, and AJ DeLaGarza was in top form for both games. LA's center backs are very good at covering for the fullbacks' marauding runs into the attacking zone, and those fullbacks - definitely Todd Dunivant, and probably Sean Franklin - generally choose the right moments to go forward, anyway. They also, as a unit, allow the fewest shots in the league. Limiting chances is their speciality.

 

DEFENSE

 

The 2010 Real Salt Lake defense was, statistically, the best in the history of the league as they allowed just 20 goals in 30 games. In 2011 it was a different story, as they gave up 36 goals in 34 games. Still second best in MLS, but not epically unbreachable as they had been the year before. The main difference was that they've had to battle a slew of injuries across the entire back line in 2011, something that's become only more pronounced in the playoffs with quadriceps strains sidelining both Jámison Olave and Nat Borchers. If one or both of those guys can't go, RSL are 6-8-0 across the regular season and playoffs. The Galaxy will be well aware of that fact.

The LA midfield has the pieces to be the best in the league, but the question is whether or not those pieces will be fully fit and functional. David Beckham did enough running for three on Thursday night, suffering a back spasm in the process. It's hard to imagine he'll have that kind of energy again. And while Landon Donovan had a great defensive play and a well-taken penalty, he's been a shadow of his former self in the second half of the season. The good news is that Mike Magee is in the best form of his life, and underrated d-mid Juninho will be well-rested after serving a suspension for the second leg against RBNY.

 

MIDFIELD

Which midfield will we see on Sunday: The one that completely dominated the Sounders in the first leg, playing keep-away for 75 minutes and generating chances at will, or the one that was dominated by Seattle in the second leg, unable to get on the ball and barely able to create a chance? The fitness of Javier Morales has to be a concern - three high-intensity games in the span of eight days is a lot at this stage of his recovery - but also causing some worry is the fact that Kyle Beckerman will probably play deeper and be less a part of the offense if RSL are forced into a central defensive pairing that's not Olave/Borchers. That will break their rhythm.

Robbie Keane has hit the post more often than he's found the back of the net for LA since his August switch, but the fact remains that his off-the-ball movement and passing eye are top notch even if his finishing form is still less than optimal. Likely running-mate Chad Barrett has his own troubles finishing, but has still managed to knock in a couple of big goals this year and is masterful at opening up space for the other LA attackers. Their ability to confuse defenses and open space for others is the Galaxy's best attacking weapon.

 

FORWARDS

The RSL forward line is a contrast in styles. In Alvaro Saborio they have a true target who will drop deep and bring midfielders into the play, then run central channels looking for one-touch finishes in the box. In Fabian Espindola they have a modern "attacker" more than a pure forward - he'll straddle the offside line, trying to beat the trap, but then find himself along the flanks sending in crosses or playing one-twos with overlapping fullbacks. Their ability to keep defenders uncomfortable and attack from angles has served them well all season.

Bruce Arena won the first two MLS Cups ever played, did the first double, won the first CONCACAF title by an MLS team and, of course, had a long and storied career with the US. His current side have won the Supporters' Shield twice on the trot, an he's managed to keep a team full of stars - and the egos that come with them - more-or-less under his thumb and playing for each other all season. That said, the Galaxy have come up short in one-offs each of the past two years in the playoffs. Over the course of the season there's nobody better, but for one game, Arena's beatable.

 

COACH

If there's one young MLS coach who looks like he's destined to join Arena and Sigi Schmid in the MLS managerial Mount Rushmore, it's Jason Kreis. He's built his RSL team using a shrewd eye for bargains, showed patience and persistence in developing players and has given his side time to jell. He also pretty comprehensively outcoached Schmid in the first leg against Seattle, then made the right adjustments in the last 15 minutes of the second leg. And he claimed Arena's scalp back in the 2009 Cup. But that remains his only major title, so for now, the nod still goes Arena's way.

LA have experience on the back line with Frankie Hejduk and Gregg Berhalter, youth and dynamism in the midfield with Chris Birchall, Michael Stephens and Paolo Cardozo, and a variety of looks they can throw up top if Arena needs it. They go about 22 deep, which is why they won the Shield and advanced to the CCL knock-out rounds.

 

BENCH

The RSL bench have gotten a severe work-out this year. Some have thrived with the extra playing time, but others have come up short. The major concern is in the back, where there's no one reliable in reserve if Chris Schuler and Chris Wingert are forced to start. The only tested bench option anywhere on the pitch is midfielder Ned Grabavoy.

LA don't look like they're peaking right now - in fact they look kind of gassed, which isn't surprising given how many games they've played. But they're a veteran team with difference-makers across every line on the field, and they're absolutely masterful at eeking out one-goal victories on set pieces. That's what the playoffs are all about: using experience to win tight games, and punishing the opposition in dead ball situations. Even if they're outplayed in midfield, they'll get their chances outside the run of play, and as they showed against New York, that's often enough.

 

OVERALL

RSL were the popular pick to win the Supporters' Shield heading into the year, and in the first leg against Seattle, they reminded us why. When they have their best XI healthy and functional, they are a sight to behold, and very likely the best team in the league. The problem is they're almost definitely not going to have their best XI against LA, and we saw what that looks like in the second leg of the Conference semis. They won't be run off the field or anything, but if Morales is less than 100 percent, and they're using a makeshift back four, LA will find a way to get the win.