Real Salt Lake finished the 2013 regular season as the highest-scoring team in the Western Conference, but that means nothing now.
The playoffs are all about defense, even more so when you’re facing the potent attack of two-time defending MLS champion Los Angeles.
“At the end of the day (Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan) are the best striker tandem in this league, so the big challenge for us is to be able to make decisions when they’re on offense,” said defender Nat Borchers.
The Galaxy beat RSL in two of three meetings this season, and scored seven goals in the process. Finding a way to slow the champs will be key in the two-game Western Conference semifinal series, which gets underway Sunday at the StubHub Center (7 p.m., ESPN).
The return leg of the total-goals series will be Thursday at Rio Tinto Stadium (7 p.m., ESPN2).
RSL coach Jason Kreis would no doubt love a draw or victory in Game 1, but he’s more concerned with the performance and having a mistake-free defensive game.
“They’re a very, very good counterattacking team with two incredibly talented individual forwards. Those are the two that caused us so much problems last game, so we need to think about how better to contain that situation,” said Kreis.
Los Angeles beat Real Salt Lake 4-2 in their final meeting of the regular season back in August, but the return of a healthy Chris Schuler has bolstered RSL’s backline over the final month.
Will it be enough against a Los Angeles team that knows how to win in November?
In capturing the MLS Cup title the past two seasons, Los Angeles has won eight of 10 playoff games. Coach Bruce Arena’s team has scored three goals in four of those eight victories and it has only been shut out once. Talented attacking players like Keane (16 goals) and Donovan (10 goals) have been behind that success.
“Collectively we need to be absolutely at the top of our game on both sides of the ball,” said Kreis. “Certainly defensively against two players like Keane and Donovan and other good attacking players that the Galaxy have, we’re going to have to be on top of our game if we want to move on in this round. Anything less than 100 percent of our best isn’t going to get it done against the Galaxy."
Prior to losing at Los Angeles 4-2 earlier this season, Real Salt Lake had incredibly won five straight away games against the Galaxy.
Another road victory certainly isn’t out of the question against a Galaxy team that’s scored multiple goals just once in the past six league matches.
“Obviously we want to go there and be good defensively and solid defensively, but also create chances and be dangerous going forward and look to score goals when we have opportunities to do so,” said midfielder Ned Grabavoy.
Realistically, expect a very conservative approach out of the visitors in Game 1. Real Salt Lake is at its best when its midfielders push high up the field to support the attack, but it’s doubtful Kreis will want to commit that many bodies going forward against arguably the best counterattacking team in MLS.
To bring a result back to Utah, RSL might need a special moment from leading goalscorers Alvaro Saborio (12 goals) and Javier Morales (eight goals).
Grabavoy said it’s important his team is ready for whatever situations arrive.
“I think you have to wait until the game starts and see what the game gives you and what you can maybe take from the game. You never know how things are going to play out. I’ve seen many games this season change because of an early red card or an early bad call. You just have to see how the game plays out,” he said.
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