CARSON, Calif. – When the LA Galaxy host Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference Championship on Sunday (9 pm ET; ESPN, ESPN Deportes, TSN2; live chat on MLSsoccer.com), the ticket to the MLS Cup could very well go to the team that controls the middle of the pitch.
“The key to winning the game tomorrow will be in the midfield,” assured RSL playmaker Javier Morales after the team’s training session at the Home Depot Center on Saturday. “The team that does the best in that zone will be the victor.”
While Morales and captain Kyle Beckerman will be in charge of fighting that battle for RSL, Juninho and David Beckham will be the men responsible for fighting back on that front for LA.
Beckham has been deadly playing in central midfield this season for the Galaxy. After notching 15 assists in the regular season – and adding two more in the postseason – he said he feels right at home in the driver’s seat.
“[Central midfield is] a position I’ve played before,” Beckham said. “I played it for Man. United, I played it for Real Madrid, and it’s a position I like to play. Bruce has played me there all season, it seems to have worked. Hopefully it’ll work on Sunday.”
As a matter of fact, it was the Englishman’s resilient effort against the New York Red Bulls in the second leg of the Western Conference Semifinals on Thursday that led the Galaxy to a comeback 2-1 win.
Even though Beckham tweaked his back in that match, he looked spry in training on Saturday and said he’d received treatment – and would continue to do so until Sunday – and was confident he’d be ready for the match.
He’ll be rejoined in the center circle by Juninho, who missed the second leg vs. New York due to red-card suspension. Although not a situation any player likes to be in, the game off allowed the Brazilian a good breather.
“Every player wants to play, and I’m no different,” Juninho told FutbolMLS.com. “I had to stay out, but thank God we won and now I’m ready for the next match. … I had a good rest, had a few days to rest up and get my head in the right place, and now I’m ready and I’m fresh for the game.”
A reenergized Juninho could spell trouble for RSL. Known for his relentless attempts to close down an opponent’s passing lanes and win the ball back, he’s shown his bombs from distance can be a lethal weapon for the Galaxy.
“I think [Juninho has] been exceptional this year. He’s grown up as a player and as a person,” said Beckham. “I’ve always said about Brazilian players, they know how to play the game, and they know how to play it well.”
On the flip side, Morales and Beckerman – like Beckham and Juninho, respectively – will look to create and disrupt for Salt Lake.
“[Beckham and Juninho] are very technical,” said RSL forward Fabián Espíndola. “But we have Javi, who is very technical, and Kyle, who has more bite.”
In their 3-0 first-leg Western Conference Semifinal win over the Seattle Sounders, Morales and Beckerman showed what they can do when lined up together in the center of RSL’s midfield.
In that game, RSL flowed from defense to attack seamlessly. Beckerman covered nearly the entire field, winning tackles, recovering the ball, intercepting passes and blocking crosses while Morales challenged the Sounders defense and threaded passes, setting up the first goal and getting an assist on the second.
It was RSL at its finest, showing their attractive brand of possession soccer that saw them through to the CONCACAF Champions League final earlier this year, and they believe that if the midfield replicate their display from that first leg vs. Seattle on Sunday against the Galaxy, a second trip in three years to MLS Cup will surely be theirs.
“This game's going to be about two teams trying to get their style of game down as quick as possible,” said Beckerman. “I think a lot of it is winning second balls, getting stuck in, and winning your tackles and then the transition from offense to defense … really quick and get behind them.
“But it will be a full team effort to win the midfield and I think it will be the same for them. If we’re all passing the ball well and creating chances and finishing plays, then hopefully we’ll start to win the battles.”
Whichever team wins that midfield battle will surely win the war.