CARSON, Calif. – The math is simple for the LA Galaxy: Don't lose Thursday night at Real Salt Lake (9 pm ET; ESPN2) and they're in their fifth successive Western Conference Championship.
The easiest path is by not conceding a goal.
That was something of a problem for the two-time defending MLS Cup champions much of the 2013 campaign, but they've turned things around at the back over the past couple of months thanks to some personnel changes and ample work to correct the trouble spots. They have arrived in the postseason playing their best defensive soccer of the season.
Goalkeeper Jaime Penedo's acquisition in early August and rookie center back Kofi Opare's promotion to a starting assignment in September have strengthened the group, which has posted shutouts in four of their last five games and six of their last 12 and surrendered more than a goal just once, in a mid-September draw at D.C. United, since routing RSL in mid-August.
“It's been a work in progress the whole year,” left back Todd Dunivant told MLSsoccer.com at training before the team traveled Wednesday to Utah. “We haven't by any means cracked the code, but I think we've done a better job of focusing on the details that make the difference.
"Those details are getting in our good blocks to start, finishing out plays, making the extra effort defensively, keying in especially on set pieces – because that's been a huge thing for us – and late goals. Those are things that troubled us all year, and as the last third of the season's come around, we've gotten so much better in all those areas.”
The Galaxy – not a side with imposing size aside from their center backs, winger Gyasi Zardes and reserve striker Jack McBean – struggled on set pieces (conceding 13 times) and at the end of matches (giving up 19 goals from the 75th minute on, which cost them 15 points and a third Supporters' Shield in four years). Those areas haven’t been a problem during the stretch run or, of course, in Sunday's 1-0 win over RSL in the Western Conference semifinal opener in Southern California.
“That's something we had to rectify fairly quickly,” captain Robbie Keane said, “from a good few months ago when we had that spell where every conversation we had [with the media] was about why are we conceding the last few minutes of games, blah blah blah. Hopefully, that's finished now.”
The time of year also had something to do with it.
“We got back to our playoff mentality,” Landon Donovan said.
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But better concentration, a full group more often in training and games and Penedo's excellence in the nets has paid the biggest dividends.
“We've had more moments of better concentration throughout the 90 minutes,” associate head coach Dave Sarachan said. “As a collective group, our shape has been excellent. Individually, guys like Kofi, Omar [Gonzalez], when the moment come to have to one-v-one defend, we've added a little bit of an edge to those guys.
"And having Jaime Penedo in goal helps – we have confidence that if something does get behind us, we've got a guy who can make the save that counts.”
The Galaxy's knowhow – and their experience in turning things around, as they did following last year's horrid start – ensured they never lost faith when they were getting punished.
“We have an experienced group, and when you make mistakes on a repeated basis, it's a matter of mentally fixing it first, and then you do the physical stuff after,” Dunivant said. “We've done a good job of tightening up all those little nuts and bolts, and it's made a difference, and you're obviously seeing that on the score sheet.”