SANDY, Utah -- Set-piece defending caused the LA Galaxy a lot of headaches all season, but they thought they'd worked their way past that. On Thursday night they learned otherwise.
Javier Morales put constant pressure on LA's defense from the corner flag and on free kicks -- especially those from distance on the left flank, with the aid of strong winds -- and Chris Schuler's volley from long service in the 12th minute of overtime enabled Real Salt Lake to end the Galaxy's dream of becoming the first club to capture three successive MLS Cup titles.
Schuler's goal was the knockout punch in a 2-0 RSL triumph in their Western Conference Semifinals series' second leg, and the Galaxy were left ruing a problem that, it turns out, was never adequately solved.
“They had a number of quality set pieces. Morales hits a good set piece,” Landon Donovan said following LA's 2-1 aggregate defeat. “Obviously, the wind, the way it was going, made it difficult, and we've got to give Schuler credit. He made a great play on that to get his foot on it and put it in. It's frustrating, you know? At this point it's over, and you've got to learn. We know there's a number of areas where we fell short, and we just didn't deserve it tonight.”
Morales, who had the wind at his back in the second half and the first portion of the 30 minutes of extra time, scored on a nearly identical free kick in the 84th minute -- from 45 yards or so, clearing everybody in front of the net and bouncing inside the right post -- but it was waved off after referee Baldomero Toledo ruled that Schuler had held Omar Gonzalez on the play. Schuler then hit the crossbar off a Morales corner kick in the 74th, and every serve seemed to put massive pressure on the Galaxy defense.
“We were sort of bending but not breaking, and finally they broke through. They were dangerous, especially on their wide free kicks,” left back Todd Dunivant said. “I think Morales was really putting in the really dangerous balls behind our line and putting Jaime [Penedo, LA's goalkeeper] in difficult spots. Those were great balls, and finally they got on the end of one.
“We defended well for long stretches, and I think we let our guard down on that one. Tip your hat to them. Schuler took a chance on that one, and it paid off for him.”
Schuler, who curled around the Galaxy's back line at the right post, seemed to be the only player near the ball who reacted to it on the game and series' decisive play. Sean Franklin and Kofi Opare were nearby, but neither seemed to notice his presence.
“The ball looked like it was headed out,” Franklin said. “It's frustrating, because that's kind of how our season has been with set pieces, and to end our season like that is definitely frustrating.”
It has indeed been a problem: LA conceded 13 goals on set pieces during the regular season.
“Set pieces are a thing, the whole team is responsible for that,” winger Robbie Rogers said. “I think over the course of the season, as long as I've been here, it's been one of our weaknesses, defensive set pieces as a team. There have been a number of games where we've given away points at the end of games off set pieces, and it's something I'm sure will be addressed and worked on.”