LA Galaxy brace for daunting new challenge: "Colorado's another level up"

CARSON, Calif. — The LA Galaxy’s 3-1 victory over Real Salt Lake on Wednesday night seemed, as the first half wound down, so easy that it even spurred minor internal squabbling in the stands. After the game’s third goal – a 34th-minute stunner by fun-sized forward Emmanuel Boateng –  at least one capo in the home supporters’ end thought his flock were taking their good luck for granted. “Come on!” he yelled into a megaphone, as he sensed energy might be dipping. “You guys are spoiled!”

Sure, a briefly equalizing penalty kick by RSL’s Joao Plata in the 21st minute gave RSL momentary hope of a harder-fought battle in the Knockout Round of the 2016 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. But that proved to be about nearly the last time the Utah contingent saw that side of the field. Instead, the first half proved to be all Galaxy, all the time, with Boateng’s two goals in quick succession killing RSL’s dreams before halftime.

And sure, plenty of LA jubilation ensued. Players ripped off and tossed sweaty shirts in glee at the whistle, running towards the supporters who had, in fact, rallied to their capo’s satisfaction. In the locker room, seemingly the entire Drake discography turned into a barked group karaoke.

But nobody could just laugh off the looming challenge: the Colorado Rapids in the Western Conference Semifinals on Sunday. Yes, in 2016, even the mighty LA Galaxy can take pause while thinking of the Rapids. Such is the unpredictable nature of MLS, of course.

“It’s just one game,” said Landon Donovan, who played 87 minutes in Wednesday's win. “And the goal for this team is not just to win a play-in game and then have the season be over. We have bigger goals. We feel good about it, but then Colorado’s another level up, and we know that.”

The key, Donovan said — and one which his teammates and coach echoed — will be to continue to build on the recent retooling of their attack. And indeed, the Galaxy’s success on Wednesday night hinged largely on a nearly relentless offense that seemed destined, from early on, to break through Real Salt Lake’s porous backline and break their spirits within minutes.

The Galaxy probably won’t find such a spongy situation at their opponents’ defense when they face Colorado on Sunday. The Rapids finished the regular season allowing less than one goal per game, while going unbeaten at home with an 11-0-6 mark. In the face of all that, LA head coach Bruce Arena knows his squad will have to continue to sharpen their attack.

“I would say that the coaching [Wednesday night] was fantastic. I think the players could have been better,” he said, joking. “But all kidding aside, I think, obviously I don’t want to concede a goal. It would have been nice to get the fourth goal … and in the first 15, 20 minutes deflate RSL a little bit, but we weren’t able to do that and they kept coming at us.”

With the team still building toward more cohesiveness, they’ll have to do it without some of their star scorers. Gyasi Zardes won’t get a medical all-clear until next week, and Steven Gerrard didn’t dress for Wednesday night’s game, leaving his status questionable.

But, you could almost say, it's no matter. Even without some key players, things have clearly been working out fine — part of what Donovan described as a weeks-long process of rebuilding the team’s connection in the offense.

“I know from a results standpoint, to you guys it seems like this was flipping a switch, but we’ve seen this over three weeks,” he said. “We’ve seen it in training, and we’ve seen it in the way we played. And although the offensive part didn’t come together in Houston and [against] Dallas the way we wanted, we were building towards it.”

And when they host Colorado, the Galaxy will still boast the two arguable men of Wednesday’s match: brace-scoring, wunderkind Boateng, as well as veteran Swiss Army Knife Alan Gordon. Yes, he went down with a non-contact injury in the 52nd minute, but it turned out to only be a minor hip issue.

Gordon quickly waved off any concerns about his health in the locker room, as a scrum of reporters, high on enthusiasm fumes, pushed microphones almost quite literally under his nose. “I should be okay,” he said.

Good thing, because Gordon said his M.O. against the Rapids would be to continue to ramp up the team’s work on the attack, and expect the best from their opponents.

“I’ve said it before – Colorado, in my opinion, was the best team this year,” he said. “They’re a really good team collectively. They fight hard, they battle; there’s no easy game against them, so it’s gonna be a tough challenge.”

Boateng, meanwhile, seemed too good-naturedly stunned by his own success – and talk of his first goal being Messi-like — to really process his possible future role in Sunday’s match.

“I’ll prepare for that game just like any other game,” he said. “I think I have the mindset to just keep it simple.”

With all of that, then, that leaves Donovan – who, perhaps, just needs to be Donovan as the playoffs progress. His role on Sunday against the Rapids, he said, would probably be to not steal the spotlight.

“On a night where Gio [Dos Santos] was excellent but relatively quiet on the scoresheet, and Robbie Keane is still getting back to fitness – imagine when all those pieces come together,” he said. “When you see the players we have on the field, I don’t always have to contribute on the scoresheet or do things like that. At this point in my life, winning is what feels best. So whatever I need to do to make that happen is what I want to do.”