There are ways to define LA Galaxy, and Real Salt Lake. Or, to put it better: There are ways they have been defined.
The Galaxy have been the pragmatic buzzsaw, the team that always saves its best for the postseason, the biggest stage. RSL have been everybody's second-favorite team, the classy group of artists who just can't get over the hump.
At least one of those tropes died on Thursday night in Utah, as RSL took a 2-0 (2-1 aggregate) win in the Western Conference Semifinals:
1. Two forwards occupy the Galaxy center backs
In the first leg, Omar Gonzalez had free reign for 65 minutes to push up into the middle of the 4-2-3-1 and win pretty much everything – air, ground, over the top, didn't matter. He was there.
Jason Kreis reverted back to the 4-4-2 for the last 25 minutes of that one, and for the duration of the second leg, and it was the right move. Gonzalez wasn't free to wreak havoc; instead, he had to spend his time tracking the speedy Robbie Findley, or the dogged (much more so than in leg 1, by the way) Alvaro Saborio.
Gonzalez and his partner, Kofi Opare, did pretty well keeping the RSL forward line under wraps. But with all their attention on that part of the field, there was plenty of room for the midfielders to push into the final third:
You give up a lot of stuff by playing two forwards, but this is the trade-off. You get to go numbers-up, if you're clever, in the final third.
Which is what happened for RSL's breakthrough.
2. RSL effectively cut the field in half
There's a lot of talk, all the time, about how effective the Galaxy counterattack is. And how good they are in transition in general – and it's talk that's justified. The Galaxy won two straight MLS Cups with that as their bread and butter.
They won't win a third because RSL took it away from them. Anytime the Galaxy tried to get into transition, the home team pushed them up an alley, and LA could never figure a way out.
The biggest indicator are Robbie Keane's completed passes. He usually does so much work out left, cutting in against a fullback or losing himself between the lines. He created zero danger from there on this night until the Galaxy got desperate late:
Fantastic game-planning from Kreis, and even better execution from his defenders.
3. And the children shall lead them...
I generally focus on tactical stuff here, because that's where I find the most fun in the game. But let's spare a thought for the two goalscorers, Velasquez and Chris Schuler. And let's take a look at Velasquez's goal, which was one of those "both Galaxy center backs are occupied" moments:
With the core of Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales and Nat Borchers getting up there in age, there has been a certain amount of hand-wringing over whether the next generation has the chops to be a winning generation. Kreis told me this summer that he has no doubt the RSL kids have the mentality and character; the only question was whether they could step up and become consistent, elite MLS players.
That question still needs a more complete answer. This was, however, a very strong data point to the good for the Claret-and-Cobalt.
Velasquez – who was the best RSL attacker in the US Open Cup final, for what it's worth – played his best all-around game as a pro, and finally seems to have some tactical chops to match his superior technique. Schuler continued to look like a guy who, should he stay healthy, will have an international future. RSL are in good hands going forward.
The Galaxy kids, who couldn't step up when Keane and Landon Donovan were struggling, need to take note.
What now, RSL?
They are finally two goals better – for this round. And after having beaten the two-time defending champs, they certainly won't be suffering from any nerves going forward.
It's a new day at Rio Tinto. And it's starting to seem like old times.