Gordon the fulcrum as Galaxy find their form | Analyst's Den

The LA Galaxy met RSL in a playoff round for the fourth time this decade. And for the third time this decade, RSL were eliminated.

Such is the story in the Western Conference, and such is the story in the Knockout Round of the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs following Wednesday night's pretty comprehensive 3-1 Galaxy win. RSL landed the first (and biggest) post-season blow between these two teams when they won the 2009 MLS Cup, and scored another knockdown in 2013, but for the most part this decade it's been all LA, and 2016 proved to be more of the same.

Here's a quick look at what happened:

Playing Off of Gordo

Alan Gordon had a goal and two assists in this one, the type of boxscore stats he'd racked up only once before in his MLS career. Dude's 35 years old and has been around a bit, and is both a better goal-scorer and much better passer than he's generally given credit for, so that should contextualize his night a little bit.

Ema Boateng is going to get the glory on this, and he deserves it -- there aren't more than a handful of players in this league who could pull this off:

But take a look at 1) the wall pass Gordon lays into Boateng's feet on the first goal, and 2) how he slips the defense immediately thereafter, causing just enough hesitation from Justen Glad. The latter's caught for a half-moment between chasing Boateng and trying to cut down the passing lane opened by Gordon's movement -- look at the 17-second mark -- for Boateng to finish with his left.

Most attacks need a fixed point to operate off of in the final third. And by that I don't mean an immobile big man, but rather a center forward who will check to the ball between the central defenders, drag the defense around and open the types of spaces for whch the likes of Boateng, Gio Dos Santos and Landon Donovan all absolutely live.

LD Carries The Water

On a night in which he took sole possession of the record for career playoff assists (he's got 15), what stood out most about Donovan was his commitment to tracking back and helping LA close down space through midfield and on the flanks. His map of measurable defensive actions, via Opta, tells the tale:

LA have been a significantly better defensive team since he un-retired. And it needs to be said that defense isn't only about effort. There are lots of guys who are fast and run a lot, but not in the right spots. Donovan was able to consistently close down lanes before they opened, and force RSL attacks into less profitable spots on the pitch.

The Galaxy aren't yet the defensive team they were two years ago, or four or five (the last three times they won MLS Cup), but they're a lot closer to what they want to be than they were a month ago. Better defense from the wings and up top are big reasons why.

RSL End an Era?

While Donovan looked very much like his younger self, the other great attacking icon of the Western Conference over the last decade, RSL's Javier Morales, looked like a man very much showing his age. He's unable to keep up with the game now that the field has gotten bigger via the 4-3-3. And because of that, RSL aren't able to get him the ball in good spots -- namely, Zone 14 or that beloved left channel, pointed directly toward goal.

In fact they got him doing basically anything else:

Morales can still be a wizard in tight places, but RSL don't play in tight places anymore. They're an open-field team, and Morales just isn't that. Neither, really, is Kyle Beckerman, and it continues to be weird to watch them get asked to play this kind of game week after week.

I suspect that, as of next year, either the 4-3-3 goes or they do. This is not to say that a 4-3-3 can't be a compact, compartmentalized system like the old diamond that served and was served by Morales and Beckerman so well. It is to say that this 4-3-3, which relies so much upon running and driving the tempo of the game, has been a bad match from the start.

And thus, RSL's year is finished. For the Galaxy -- with Gordon playing like this and Gyasi Zardes back in training -- it feels like things are just now getting started.