At some point during the regular season — as Portland drew their way through the season’s first months, LA tried to convince us they were more vulnerable this year, and Seattle malingered outside the playoff picture — Real Salt Lake asserted themselves as one of the favorites in the Western Conference – which was funny. This winter, salary cap considerations forced RSL to make tough choices that cost them Jamison Olave, Will Johnson, and Fabian Espinola.
All three were starters on a team that finished second in the West. All three were gone before the next season’s kickoff. In February, RSL seemed to be rebuilding.
“If at the beginning of the season you told me we would barely slip into the playoffs I would have said I’ll take it,” RSL head coach Jason Kreis reminded us mid-week. “Give it to me and I’ll take it, we’ll have a chance in the playoffs.”
Instead, Real Salt Lake competed for the Supporters’ Shield through the season’s last round, made the U.S. Open Cup final (though let’s not remind them of that), and finished second in the Western Conference, an achievement that won them the honor of facing the two-tme defending champion LA Galaxy in the Western Conference semifinals. The teams’ two-legged match kicks off Sunday at StubHub Center (9 p.m. ET kickoff).
In three regular season meetings, LA won twice and lose once, but it’s been over two months since the teams met. In Carson on August 17, Robbie Keane recorded a hat trick in LA’s 4-2 victory, the final score made closer by Robbie Findley’s 95th minute consolation. Over the course of the season, the Galaxy outscored RSL 7-5.
Don’t expect RSL’s defense to be so generous on Sunday. Real Salt Lake hasn’t allowed more than one goal in a game since Sept 21st’s visit from San Jose, during which time Chris Schuler has returned to partner Nat Borchers in central defense. As they showed two weeks ago in Portland, RSL is perfectly capable of going on the road against high-level competition and holding out for a 0-0 result. As Jason Kreis noted after the Oct. 19 match, that was the type of performance RSL may need to replicate in the playoffs.
As with all Galaxy opponents, RSL’s ability to do so will depend on how they can matchup with Keane and Landon Donovan. Dangerous under normal circumstances, LA’s forward tandem becomes more so in the playoffs, where their work in transition during last year’s playoffs spurred the Galaxy to the club’s fourth MLS Cup. While Real Salt Lake are hard to catch on the counter, their inability to contain Keane in the teams’ last meeting speaks to their difficulty with LA’s captain.
It’s not an uncommon problem. Portland, Seattle, or whomever comes out of the Eastern Conference will face the same dilemma opponents have encountered throughout the last two postseasons. Beyond matchups, form, regular season results, or any kind of expectations a team carried into a season, when you have to contain them for 180 minutes, how do you stop Keane and Donovan?
Or better put: Can you stop Keane and Donovan? Real Salt Lake has a chance to be the first.