SANDY, Utah — Robbie Keane made quite an impression on Real Salt Lake the last time they saw him up close and personal. Scoring three goals will do that.
And the LA Galaxy forward, who had a second-half hat trick to lead his team to a 4-2 win on Aug. 17, will definitely be on the minds of the Claret-and-Cobalt when the two teams meet in the StubHub Center on Sunday in the first leg of their Western Conference semifinal playoff series (9 pm ET, ESPN).
“He has the whole package,” said Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando. “He's one of the best players in this league for a reason. That's one of the guys we're definitely focusing on come Sunday.”
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Keane is the fourth-leading scorer in the league this season; 16 goals in just 23 games. And he's third on the assists list with 11. But it's not just his goalscoring that impresses RSL. He also “works extremely hard on the defensive side of things,” said RSL head coach Jason Kreis. “Talented player. For me, the MVP of the league.”
But not the only forward who concerns his team heading into Sunday's game.
At least as smart as Keane and Donovan.
“The two of them work incredibly well together because it's not always one high and the other one underneath,” Kreis said. “They take turns on which forward is going to be toeing the line and which forward is going to be dropping into the gap.”
Combatting that is going to require “a commitment by all our players … to defend and to recognize where we get our success.”
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“We play our best soccer,” Rimando said, “when we possess the ball and play good team defense.”
And that is why Kreis has been emphasizing defense in practice and in the recent games. While there's been some question about RSL's offense (just five goals in the last seven games), the coach prefers to point to RSL's defense (three goals given up in the last five games, and no more than a single goal in any of those matches).
“It's not just about what we do with the ball,” Kreis said. “It has to be about what we do without the ball — and then what that can mean when we do have the ball.”
Scott Pierce covers Real Salt Lake for MLSsoccer.com.