They do the unpredictable. Keane can do so many special things on the ball, and Zardes works his butt off and makes the runs Keane doesn’t want to make and they just work well off each other. —RSL keeper Nick Rimando
SANDY — The task facing Real Salt Lake in the opening round of the playoffs is straightforward and daunting at the same time — slow the best attack in MLS.
The Los Angeles Galaxy scored a league-best 69 goals this season, four more than Seattle and 15 more than RSL.
Robbie Keane led the way with 19 goals, followed by Gyasi Zardes with 16 and Landon Donovan with 10.
“They do the unpredictable. Keane can do so many special things on the ball, and Zardes works his butt off and makes the runs Keane doesn’t want to make and they just work well off each other,” said RSL keeper Nick Rimando. “And then you throw Donovan in the mix and there’s that dynamic three that we have to make sure we have an eye on at all times.”
Rimando joked that every week it seems like a Galaxy goal is up for MLS Goal of the Week.
Los Angeles rested Keane in last week’s regular season finale at Seattle, with coach Bruce Arena telling reporters afterward Keane had a few nagging injuries and the team wanted to rest him for the playoffs.
In three matches against RSL this year, Keane played 90, 90 and 89 minutes respectively, scoring one goal while averaging just under five shots a game.
His supporting cast is too good for Real Salt Lake to focus too much on Keane, but he’s someone defender Tony Beltran said everyone needs to be mindful of in Game 1 at Rio Tinto Stadium this Saturday (6 p.m., NBCSN).
“Keane’s arguably the best player in the league, there’s no doubt about that,” said Beltran.
He’ll be going up against a confident defense, one that finished the season strong and ended the year with the third-best goals against in MLS at 39.
Real Salt Lake finished the season with three straight shutouts against San Jose, Portland and Chivas USA. Even though none of the three made the playoffs, the clean sheets were the result a strong commitment defensively.
“Complete commitment from the guys,” said Beltran. “We’ve got a lot of talented defenders, and a lot of talented players in front of us who are committed to defend, and when we’re all on the same page and working so hard and doing the little things right, then that’s the difference, and that’s often the difference in the playoffs, the little things,” said Beltran.
In last year’s playoff series against the Galaxy, RSL only conceded one goal over the two matches.
With away goals counting as the first tiebreaker in the playoffs this year, Los Angeles likely won’t sit back in Game 1 at Rio Tinto Stadium as much as coach Arena might’ve instructed his team otherwise.
That will mean a steady dose of Keane, Zardes and Donovan running at Real Salt Lake’s backline.
“The way I’ve seen our defense play in the past, and at moments we’ve stopped them before, and there’s no reason we can’t stop them again if we play up to our par,” said Rimando.
James Edward is Deseret News prep editor and Real Salt Lake beat writer.