Landon Donovan

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.

Watch Live: West Bromwich Albion vs. Middlesbrough (Lineups, Live Stream)

WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND - AUGUST 28: The West Brom crest is seen prior to the Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Middlesbrough at The Hawthorns on August 28, 2016 in West Bromwich, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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West Bromwich Albion searches for its second win this season on Sunday when they take on Middlesbrough at 8:30 a.m. E.T. from The Hawthorns on CNBC or live online at NBCSports.com.

The Boro holds a narrow advantage in all-time meetings, with four wins out of eight, and Aitor Karanka‘s side certainly have the capabilities to pull off another victory against West Brom following a solid summer in the transfer window.

WATCH LIVE: West Bromwich Albion vs. Middlesbrough live online

Karanka’s men remain unbeaten through two matches, including last weekend’s narrow 2-1 victory over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light.

West Brom remains largely intact with its starting XI as Salomon Rondon gets the start up front for the Baggies. Tony Pulis‘ side has plenty of options off the bench as well, including Saido Berahino and Craig Gardner to provide a spark.

For Middlesbrough, U.S. international Brad Guzan will get the start in goal for the first time this season, as Victor Valdes remains sidelined with a hamstring injury. Alvaro Negredo looks to continue his fine start to the season after notching a goal and two assists in his first two matches.

LINEUPS

West Bromwich Albion – Foster; Dawson, McAuley, Evans, Galloway; Phillips, Yacob, Fletcher (c), Field, McClean; Rondon.
Bench – Rose; Olsson, Gardner, Lambert, Berahino, Leko, Wilson

Middlesbrough – Guzan, Nsue, Ayala, Gibson, Barragan, Forshaw, Clayton, Stuani, Ramirez, Downing, Negredo.
Bench – 
Dimi, Bernardo, Rhodes, Reach, Fischer, De Sart, Nugent.

PL Sunday Preview: Man City hosts Hammers, Boro visits West Brom

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - AUGUST 21: Middlesborough manager Aitor Karanka looks on during the Premier League match between Sunderland FC and Middlesbrough FC at Stadium of Light on August 21, 2016 in Sunderland, England. (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)
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These four clubs have a combined two losses so far in Premier League competition. Unfortunately for Middlesbrough and West Ham, outside league play was not so kind over the past four days.

Those two clubs were both ousted from cup competitions by inferior clubs, and must regroup to maintain their unbeaten league status on the road.

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West Brom vs. Middlesbrough — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

A Sunday morning road trip for Middlesbrough was good to them last weekend, so why not again? Boro remains unbeaten in the league, having dispatched Sunderland last time out for their first win of the season, but Aitor Karanka will need to put a midweek loss to Fulham in the League Cup in the rear-view mirror.

[ MORE: Late Rashford strike lifts Manchester United ]

It’s been a mixed bag for West Brom thus far, with the high of their opening day win over Crystal Palace erased with a home Premier League loss to Everton and an even more disappointing result against League One minnows Northampton in the League Cup. Tony Pulis and the rest of the West Brom executives are under fire for not improving the squad with just days left in the transfer window.

INJURIES: West Brom OUT: Chris Brunt (knee). QUESTIONABLE: Brendan Galloway (hamstring), Jonny Evans (hip). | Middlesbrough OUT: Victor Valdes (hamstring), Marten De Roon (hamstring), George Friend (calf), Fabio (knee). QUESTIONABLE: Daniel Ayala (fitness), Bernardo Espinosa (fitness).

Manchester City vs. West Ham United — 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Like Middlesbrough, West Ham is in good league form, but their midweek result in another competition will place a damper on this weekend’s events. The Hammers were ousted from the Europa League before the group stage for the second season in a row, falling to Romanian champions Astra Girugiu…for the second season in a row.

Last year, Slaven Bilic turned things around in three days, beating Arsenal at the Emirates just after Europa League elimination. This year, the road test is just as difficult, and with injuries to a number of key attackers, the Hammers will need to dig deep to turn things around.

[ MORE: Petr Cech says Arsenal is aiming for Premier League title ]

Manchester City fell to West Ham at home last season, and Pep Guardiola will be sure to make them remember. Willy Caballero is likely to continue in goal with Claudio Bravo having just arrived, and while it seems Manchester City has yet to be seriously tested in league play, the Argentinian and his back line have yet to keep a clean sheet.

INJURIES: Manchester City  OUT: Ilkay Gundogan (knee), Vincent Kompany (thigh), Claudio Bravo (preparation). QUESTIONABLE: Leroy Sane (fitness). West Ham  OUT: Sofiane Feghouli (hamstring), Andre Ayew (thigh), Andy Carroll (), Cresswell (knee), Henry (knee) QUESTIONABLE: Dimitri Payet (fitness), Manuel Lanzini (fitness), Havard Nordtveit (foot), Mark Noble (wrist).

MLS Snapshot: Toronto FC 0-1 Montreal Impact

MONTREAL, QC - MARCH 12:  Ignacio Piatti #10 of the Montreal Impact controls the ball during the MLS game against the New York Red Bulls at the Olympic Stadium on March 12, 2016 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Montreal Impact defeated the New York Red Bulls 3-0.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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The game in 100 words (or less): A passionate but sloppy rivalry match saw Toronto stunned by 10-man Montreal at BMO Field. The Impact held strong against a toothless Toronto 2nd-half push, and they pinged a goal against the run of play inside the final 20 minutes to end Toronto’s seven-match unbeaten run. With Montreal’s Callum Mallace seeing red just before halftime, the hosts had little to offer Evan Bush’s goal, and Ignacio Piatti worked a goal out of nothing to earn the Impact three points. At least Toronto had a cool tifo:

Three moments that mattered:

44′ – A spotty first half came boiling over just before the break when Marco Delgado clipped Dominic Osorio on a breakaway. Steven Beitashour came trotting back towards the incident and was decked by Callum Mallace. A brawl developed and after the scuffle, Mallace was sent off. While the extra-curricular activity definitely warranted punishment, it’s controversial to conclude that Mallace’s actions warranted a straight red card.

65′ – Toronto poured pressure forward, and looked to the referee twice, who was unmoved. First Sebastian Giovinco went down under a clip from Laurent Ciman, who appeared to stick his leg out behind him and trip the Italian. Then, Jozy Altidore went to ground on a body check from Hassoun Camara, but again the referee shook his head. The US international looked to have toppled to the floor easily under pressure from . This double moment was pivotal in the match anyways, but became even more significant after Seba came off limping heavily, holding his inner thigh, substituted for Tsubasa Endoh.

73′ – Out of nothing, Montreal had a stunning lead. Evan Bush booted a goal kick to midfield, and the ball falls to Oduro who works hard to divert play to Piatti on the left edge of the box. The 31-year-old collected with a few expert touches, then suddenly one-on-one with Steven Bieteshour, Piatti deposited his 14th goal of the season inside the far post, leaving Alex Bono no chance.

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Man of the match: Ignacio Piatti

Goalscorers: Piatti 73′

MLS Snapshot: Philadelphia Union 2-0 Sporting KC

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 12:  Fabinho #33 of the Philadelphia Union controls the ball against the Columbus Crew SC on March 12, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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The game in 100 words or lessPhiladelphia wasted an energetic start to the match, but the hosts found themselves with a man advantage shortly into the second half, and they’d take advantage, winning 1-0 at Talen Energy Stadium behind a goal from Roland Alberg, who had entered the field just two minutes before scoring. The Union were overall the better side, but the hosts weren’t without chances of their own, most notably watching Dom Dwyer miss moments before Alberg’s goal. It was all over for KC when Roger Espinoza was also sent off for a second yellow late in the match, seeing Philly bag a second with ticks on the clock.

Three moments that mattered

17′ – A whopping four missed chances plagued the otherwise positive start for the home side. First, Tranquillo Barnetta curled in a gorgeous effort that was acrobatically parried away by a leaping Alec Kann. Then, in the 11th and 14th minutes, a pair of low crosses from Fabinho along the face of goal fell just out of reach of a sliding C.J. Sapong. Finally, the 17th minute saw Chris Pontius fire just wide with a header on a free-kick.

59′ – Philadelphia was given an advantage the rest of the way when Jimmy Medranda was given his second yellow card for hauling down Keegan Rosenberry on the edge of the box. Mandranda had been cautioned earlier for dissent when he laid into the referee following a first-half foul call.

67′ – Just moments after Dwyer missed wide right on a breakaway, Philadelphia capitalized on their man advantage. Fabinho connected with substitute Roland Alberg, and the 26-year-old Dutchman let loose a curler into the top right for a 1-0 lead. There was no looking back.

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Man of the match: Fabinho

Goalscorers: Alberg 67′, Barnetta 90+2′