The story for Real Salt Lake is that they need to be two goals better this year. And they've needed to be two goals better every year, in one form or another, since 2009.
This group of players has lost by a single goal at this stage of the playoffs in two of the last three seasons (last year to Seattle; in 2010 to FC Dallas). They also lost by a single goal to Monterrey in the 2010-11 CONCACAF Champions League final, and by a single goal to D.C. United in this year's US Open Cup final.
They're down a single goal to start this one as well (9 pm ET; ESPN2) thanks to Sunday's 1-0 LA Galaxy victory that probably flattered the Claret-and-Cobalt.
Let's start there:
RSL need to get Beckerman touches and lanes
If there was one thing that really characterized the first game, it was RSL's lack of rhythm. They came out in a 4-2-3-1 with Kyle Beckerman and Yordany Alvarez as a double-pivot, and it didn't really work.
The first part of that was that a double-pivot changes Beckerman's role just enough so that defensive movements aren't as automatic, and there was more than one moment of confusion among him and Alvarez. The second part, which is a direct offshot of the first, is that it presented Alvarez -- a limited distributor of the ball -- with more than his fair share of the passing burden against a team as smart and compact through midfield as the Galaxy.
Alvarez, to his credit, didn't turn the ball over much. But he's also slower in his distribution, and not as good at putting the more advanced midfielders into spots where they can make a play.
Beckerman also struggled with that for the first 65 minutes. Look at his map of completed passes:
It's a lot, but there are precious few of the field-tilting passes at which Beckerman is so proficient. He rarely breaks the game open, or creates the chance himself. It's more that RSL rely on him to get the ball to Javier Morales in position to do exactly that.
Once Alvarez came off and RSL went back to their diamond midfield, Beckerman started completing different types of passes and his team found their rhythm:
Look at how much more distance is covered per pass, and how many of them are forward instead of back or to the side. With other teams this might signal undue aggression; with a group as experienced and well-drilled as RSL, it means they were creating the seams they've used to become one of the most consistent regular-season teams in league history.
RSL created seven of their 11 shots on the night from the 65th minute onwards, many of which started at the foot of Beckerman. And all of which came because they found a rhythm that had eluded them earlier.
Galaxy have to be sharper in the final third
Ugh. Great observation, right? It's about as boring as saying, "These teams have to do better on set pieces."
But it really is that simple for this one: RSL have to control the rhythm (because that's how they both create chances and defend), while LA have to make them pay for every single turnover. We know where turnovers are going to happen, and who's going to win the second ball:
If you need a quick tl;dr of that table: Sarvas and Juninho are Nos. 2 & 3 in the league in successful passes; Nos. 2 & 9 in recoveries; and Nos. 1 & 4 in touches. They are more or less interchangeable, whereas Beckerman and Morales have much more defined roles. The Galaxy are still at their best on the counter, but they are also a very good possession team who know how to turn you over in spots where they want you to turn the ball over. It's not high pressure, it's selective pressure.
That's what they did on Sunday when they won balls and sprung the forwards, but both Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan were uncharacteristically awful in front of net.
Here, have small sample:
If Keane is missing chances like that, and Donovan isn't threatening either, then LA's run for three straight Cups will come to an end in Utah. Or at least have to go through the meat-grinder that is Nick Rimando in a penalty shoot-out (which, as a neutral, would be absolutely incredible theater that I'm very much hoping we get to see).
So there's the stakes: Two goals better for RSL vs. three Cups in a row for LA. Rhythm vs. Recoveries. And a bit of sharpness in front of goal.