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.

STREAM LIVE: The Manchester Derby

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The third Manchester Derby of the season is the first away from Old Trafford, as Manchester United visits Manchester City (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) at the Etihad Stadium on Thursday.

There’s much on the line, as the sides sit just two points apart in the race for the Top Four. Man City would leapfrog third-place Liverpool with a win, while United could join the Reds on 66 points with a match-in-hand.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE, HERE

Sergio Aguero starts for Man City, with Gabriel Jesus on the bench.

On the other side, it’ll be a physical middle-third guarded by Ander Herrera, Michael Carrick, and Marouane Fellaini. Wayne Rooney and Jesse Lingard start on the bench.

LINEUPS

Manchester City: Bravo, Zabaleta, Kompany (C), Otamendi, Kolarov, Fernandinho, Yaya Toure, Sterling, De Bruyne, Sane, Aguero. Subs: Caballero, Sagna, Fernando, Navas, Clichy, Gabriel Jesus, A. Garcia

Manchester United: De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Blind, Darmian; Herrera, Carrick, Fellaini, Mkhitaryan; Rashford, Martial. Subs: Romero, Shaw, Fosu-Mensah, Tuanzebe, Young, Lingard, Rooney.

Ex-Liverpool CEO shares biting story of Suarez transfer

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Ian Ayre’s got jokes.

The former Liverpool CEO lifted the lid on some transfer stories during a Merseyside lecture this week.

Of note, Ayre admitted that the club thought Dele Alli demanded too much given what he had produced when the Reds has the chance to sign him as a 16-year-old, and said that Liverpool could’ve landed Alexis Sanchez but the player wanted to live in London (“We couldn’t move the football club to London, unfortunately,” he quipped).

The best part relayed by Sky Sports had to do with Luis Suarez, and shows the relentless nature of the transfer market. Clearly Barcelona had interest in Suarez before the fiery striker bit Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup, because, well…

“I remember the sporting director of Barcelona calling me during that game, immediately as Suarez bit the player, and he said to me ‘my friend, he’s bitten somebody, how can this be the price?’ I said ‘he’d already bitten somebody when you first bid!'”

We’re sure there’s a certain amount of storytelling in there, but undoubtedly some truth.

Given Barca paid a reported $84 million for the striker, the asking price couldn’t have started that much higher.

Men in Blazers podcast: Chelsea tops Spurs, Top Four predictions

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Rog and Davo return to discuss Chelsea’s FA Cup semifinal victory over Spurs, update their Top Four predictions (again), and dive into the depths of the relegation zone. Plus, the very important movement to change “Hudson Street” to “Ray Hudson Street.”

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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De Rossi admits desire to beat young teammates with bat

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Daniele De Rossi doesn’t like the modern world.

Okay, okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the Roma legend dropped a funny quote when discussing the differences between young players these days and those when he began his career.

A one-club man, the 33-year-old De Rossi has played in 556 matches for i Lupi and admits that he probably flummoxed veterans when he began his career because that’s the cyclical nature of adulthood.

From Italia Football:

“When we started out, it was all different, that was 20 years ago. Now a 20-year-old will get into the first team and have more Instagram followers than Messi. When I was young, the older players would say ‘it wasn’t like in my day’ – that’s life and it always will be.

“Mind you, some of them irritate me too. When I see them do live Instagram videos from inside the locker room before a game, I’d like to take a baseball bat to their teeth… But they’re 18 years old and in 20 years’ time they will find themselves complaining about the youth of today.”

Mmmm, tastes like ash and hickory.

It’s a safe bet that De Rossi isn’t wild about Stephan El Shaarawy’s hair, we imagine, but living legends generally get a little leeway with their comments in the media.

Plus, it sounds like he has the wisdom to understand the “why” and at least channel his angry into tackles.