MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on the LA Galaxy ahead of Sunday’s visit from Real Salt Lake

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Ahead of Sunday’s first-leg of this Western Conference semifinal, here are the must-knows about the LA Galaxy ahead of tonight’s match with Real Salt Lake:

  • Still waiting for Robbie Keane+Landon Donovan to lose

Robbie Keane’s spent two-and-a-half years in Major League Soccer, in which time the LA Galaxy have been involved in seven different playoff matchups (three in 2011; four last year). They’ve yet to lose any of them. The high-profile trio of Keane, Landon Donovan, and David Beckham produced consecutive MLS Cups after the Irishman’s arrival.

Beckham’s now gone, but giving how Los Angeles has dissected their playoff competition, it’s fair to say Keane and Donovan deserve some special consideration. While Beckham came up big in both MLS Cup finals, the partnership Keane and Donovan appear to have perfected was the main reason Bruce Arena’s teams have been able to deliver. Particularly on the counter attack, they can be frighteningly unstoppable.

RSL need to find a way to slow them down, but the teams’ last meeting was not promising. In August, Keane scored three times while leading the Galaxy to a 4-2 win in Carson.

  • Don’t forget Omar Gonzalez

Given the big defender won MVP at last year’s MLS Cup final, it’s a big of a disservice to exclude him from a list of Los Angeles’s big-time playoff performers. Yet over the course of this season, the new Designated Player has experienced some unexpected hiccups. Coinciding with the announcing of his new deal, the 25-year-old looked surprisingly vulnerable in the middle, some of his U.S. National Team mistakes creeping into his club world.

Of late, though, Gonzalez has recovered. As Bruce Arena noted mid-week, he seems to have finally settled in after perhaps struggling to justify his new contract. Gonzalez is back to his Best XI self.

Against Álvaro Saborio, he’ll be needed. Thanks to injury and international commitments, the Costa Rican striker was limited to 16 appearances this season (1346 minutes). In that time, however, he scored 12 times. Pro-rated, that’s 27 goals over the course of 34 90-minute games.

Gonzalez can handle him — he’s done so before — but he’s going to have to be the player we saw at the end of the year, not the one that played in the middle.

  • How worries should LA be able the rookies in defense?

Kofi Opare has stepped up. The second round pick out of Michigan, much like Tommy Meyer at the end of last season, has provided an unexpected boost to a defense that lost A.J. DeLaGarza. He’s a rookie in name but not in performance.

But with Todd Dunivant likely to miss Sunday’s game, Bruce Arena faces the prospect of starting two first-year players in defense. Twenty-three-year-old Greg Cochrane could get the call at left back, meaning one side of LA’s Sunday defense could have a combined 18 games of MLS experience.

Add in the theory that RSL may be one of the worst matchups for an inexperienced defense, and this has the potential to be LA’s undoing. Not only does RSL have the West’s best attack (57 goals in 34 games), but the mastery of their system leaves their team particularly adept at exploiting opponents’ errors. They’ve seen everything; they’ve accomplished everything; and they’ve consistently done it with the same style, tactics, and system. When an opening’s presented, they know what they’re supposed to do.

That’s why it may be particularly important to cut off service from Javier Morales. That task will fall on central midfielders Marcelo Sarvas and Juninho. They can’t allow the Argentine playmaker time to pick apart that inexperienced defense.

  • Another year; another goalkeeper

In 2009, Donovan Ricketts got LA to the final. The last two years, Josh Saunders has been in goal. If LA’s to made their fourth final in six seasons, though, it’s going to be with a third goalkeeper. Panamanian international Jaime Penedo will be tasked with guiding the Galaxy to a fifth MLS championship.

The newest model may be the best yet. Penedo’s been nothing short of a savior: coming in to take the reigns from Carlo Cudicini; helping Los Angeles move beyond their experiment with the long-time Chelsea backup. His save percentage is 20 points higher (77 to 57). He allows half-a-goal less per game. As Penedo asserted himself, LA made a late season charge up the West’s pecking order, briefly pulling themselves back into Supporters’ Shield contention.

Is if fair to say he’s better than the 2009 version of Donovan Ricketts? Probably not. He’s only played nine games. But he’s instilled a confidence that hasn;t existed since the big Jamaican was goal. As a result, Penedo’s addressed LA’s biggest need.

  • Home field not the be-all, end-all

We often talk about the importance of the home team getting a win in game one, but last year, Los Angeles lost the first leg of their Western Conference semifinal before eliminating the Supporters Shield winners. Their 3-1 win at San Jose rendered their 1-0 loss at home meaningless.

Salt Lake is a very tough place to play, but one bad day won’t ruin LA’s chances. This team’s more capable than most of turning a tie around on the road. While taking advantage of home field may be especially important in other series, the two-time champions are more resilient than most. A slip against RSL don’t doom their season.

Pique finds solidarity with criticized NBA players

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There have been a number f outstanding pieces in The Players’ Tribune since its launch, but few as colorful and entertaining as Thursday’s entry from Gerard Pique.

The Barcelona star center back spilled the beans on any number of funny stories in his post, from Roy Keane’s cell phone anger and Sir Alex Ferguson‘s guiding hand to Lionel Messi’s greatness and more.

[ MORE: Zlatan in MLS an auto success ]

But perhaps most interesting was his take on the grief he’s received for supporting the vote for Catalan independence. Pique points out that he’s been proud to represent the Spanish national team, but won’t veer from his democratic beliefs.

And guess what? Even in Spain, athletes rightly bristle at the “Stick to Sports” crowd.

It’s funny, I noticed some people in America have started telling the NBA players to “just shut up and dribble” when they express their opinions on real problems in society.

It’s ridiculous, no?

It’s the same here in Spain. They say, “Just shut up and play football. It’s all you know.”

Sorry, but I will not just shut up and play. It’s not all I know. There’s a lot more depth to footballers than most people realize, and I think it’s important that we express ourselves and our views.

Given relative health, Zlatan’s success MLS is close to automatic

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The only question is his knee at his age.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is coming to Major League Soccer. Having confirmed his departure from Manchester United, the announcement that the living Swedish legend is joining the LA Galaxy is expecting next week.

[ MORE: MLS Weekend Preview ]

Some have asked whether he’ll cut muster in the league, to which we point to the lead: Few players have arrived to MLS with as dominant a career as Ibrahimovic, and the Swede would need his knee to fall apart in order to fail in California.

The man’s game isn’t based on speed, but it does require his abnormal power and grace. He scored just once for United in very limited time this season, but don’t forget how dangerous he was against Premier League and Europa League defenses last season.

He scored 28 goals with 10 assists last season, with 17 and 5 coming in league play. He was suspended for three matches and injured for seven, meaning this is a 20-goal Premier League scorer arriving in MLS within a calendar year of doing so.

Try putting his resume in perspective: Didier Drogba was extremely good for Montreal but a half-decade removed from his last double-digit goal PL season (Don’t forget that Drogba bagged 11 in 11 to start life on our shores). Robbie Keane was about the same time removed from his run of 10-plus goal seasons in the Premier League. He was good for LA.

The only risk here is that Ibrahimovic never gets healthy and LA takes a bit of a loss on his salary (one which is at least partially negated by the sheer number of Ibrahimovic Galaxy jerseys sold).

Entering this season, Ibrahimovic had failed to score 15 goals once since 2006. He’a also had a fairly religious assist output (10+ most years). With names like Alessandrini, Kamara, and dos Dos Santos, this should be a stand-up double if not a homer for LA and for MLS.

Plus the vicious looks after teammates miss him badly with a pass, let alone the press conferences and paparazzi hits: This should be a lot of fun.

MLS Weekend Preview: Friedel’s Revs get NYCFC test

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It’s an international break, and Major League Soccer is only sorta observing it.

More than half of the league’s clubs will participate on Saturday match days, with several shorthanded by national team duty.

[ MORE: Southgate on racism in football]

Columbus won’t have Zack Steffen and Wil Trapp for a visit from DC United — who is missing Zoltan Steiber, Bruno Miranda, and Oniel Fisher — while the Red Bulls will be without Tyler Adams, Kemar Lawrence, and Michael Murillo for Minnesota United’s visit.

NYCFC won’t have Alexander Ring, Ronald Matarrita, and Rodney Wallace, Portland’s without David Guzman and Andy Polo, and Sporting KC loses Daniel Salloi.

The Whitecaps won’t have center back Kendall Waston, while opponents LA Galaxt are without Ola Kamara.

New England Revolution vs. New York City FC — 1:30 p.m. ET Saturday

Brad Friedel‘s New England revolution, purposely lower case, is making believers out of its players. It would take a giant step if it could slow the NYCFC juggernaut. The visitors have allowed just one goal in their 3-0 start.

As for the hosts, Friedel has made his mark in a way that mostly makes you wonder what in the world Jay Heaps was doing:.

(Bunbury) pointed to a fine system in the locker room, increased accountability, how Friedel posts the starting XI on game day, and occasional two-a-day training sessions, which never occurred in the forward’s four years under Heaps.

“I think it unifies the team,” Bunbury said. “The broad sense of professionalism, it’s about having respect for each other and making sure you are held accountable in every part of this club.”

Never occurred under Heaps? Woof.

FC Dallas vs. Portland Timbers — 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday

FCD had an uninspiring ending to their CONCACAF Champions League dreams, but that’s little compared to the Timbers’ 0-2 start under Gio Savarese. A trip down South isn’t a surefire way to right the ship.

Vancouver Whitecaps vs. LA Galaxy — 10 p.m. ET Saturday

A long trip up North is only made worse by a laundry list of injuries for Sigi Schmid’s Galaxy. We’re only listing it amongst our Top Three because an LA win would be wildly impressive given the ‘Caps strong start.


Columbus Crew vs. DC United — 6 p.m. ET Saturday
New York Red Bulls vs. Minnesota United — 7 p.m. ET Saturday
Colorado Rapids vs. Sporting KC — 9 p.m. ET Saturday

Mourinho: “People with brains” understand Man Utd in transition

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Jose Mourinho’s been having a little fun on his international break, “managing” a team of superstars including Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt in a charity match.

[ MORE: Southgate talks racism in football ]

Speaking CNN as part of a publicity run, Mourinho was asked about Manchester United’s second place campaign and disappointment after dropping out of the UEFA Champions League.

Mourinho reiterated his position that United is a team in transition, and that the season is going along at an acceptable clip.

“I understand the frustration, I understand the sadness of being knocked out in the Champions League, but I don’t understand anything more than that,” Mourinho said to CNN’s Amanda Davies.

United has scored the third-most goals in the Premier League, and allowed the fourth-fewest. It’s drastically reduced its propensity to draw matches, which hurt its table position last season, and has already surpassed last season’s goal total.

Two more wins, 10 goals better differential, and the list goes on but unfortunately also includes crosstown rivals running away with the league and still alive in the UCL.

“Of course in the future we want to have 19 clubs behind us but this is the reality,” said Mourinho. “And the reality is for people with brain, with sense, with common sense, with knowledge of what sports is, we are in a moment of transition. Being in a moment of transition and still manage to do what he did last season and win trophies and to do what we are trying to do this season, which is still trying to win a trophy, and try to be second, because in this moment it’s the only top position that is possible for us to get. I think we are in a good position.”