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Real Salt Lake at LA Galaxy - Western Conference Final - match preview

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2011 MLS Cup logo
2011 MLS Cup logo

Well since RSL joined the league there has been no team who perhaps has enjoyed the highs and lows as much as they have as the Los Angeles Galaxy. The battles between the two sides have become fairly epic and the 2009 MLS Cup final that went to PK's was just the most public of their battles. Each side has won 7 matches and lost 7 matches against the other, with 5 going to draws, RSL holds a lead in goals scored of 31 to 28, the margin of the teams 4-1 win in March of this year.

The two clubs have taken very different paths to success since 2005, LA with the bright lights and big city have opted to the big names, big paychecks and pushed Major League Soccer into a new era which now includes Designated Players. Real Salt Lake have built their team and success around the Jason Kreis mantra of "The Team is the Star" and that has taken them where no other MLS team has gone to a CONCACAF Champions League final and back to back top three finishes in Major League Soccer.

For both clubs this match will be a historic one, for LA this is the final year of David Beckham's contract and while many hope that he will resign with the team, this LA squad was built to win MLS Cup and nothing less will be considered a success. For RSL, they started the season with the highest of hopes and one of the biggest matches ever played by a MLS team, the Champions League Final, but after losing to Monterrey the season has been a series of ups and downs, for them it is about validation as one of the top teams in the league as a small market team, the underdogs with high aspirations.

After the jump my Key Match Up, Wildcards, my RSL Starting XI, and my prediction for the match:

Key Match Up:

LA's Consistency vs. RSL's inconsistency -

Over the last two seasons there has been no more consistent team in Major League Soccer than the LA Galaxy, their 18 wins in 2010 and 19 wins this year simply show a team that plays at the highest level each time they take the pitch and this year they had just 5 losses all year. RSL had almost that many over the final month of the season. The Galaxy don't lose when they score first, they went 16-0-4 when scoring first, even when they give up the first goal they do better than most teams with a 3-5-2 record. For comparison RSL is 15-3-2 when scoring first, and 0-8-2 when giving up the first goal.

The Galaxy were able to win 9 of their matches this year by a 1-0 score, and 3 more were won by a 1 goal margin, in 27 of their matches they gave up a goal or kept a clean sheet, only 6 times were they held without scoring a goal. While LA gave up 13 goals in the final 30 minutes of matches, they scored 23 goals in that same time period, in fact only in the first 15 minutes of matches have they been outscored by opponents and that is just 5 goals allowed to 4 goals scored.

RSL has scored two or more goals in 12 of their matches this year, but allowed opponents to score 2 or ore in 11 of their matches. RSL was only held scoreless 10 times this year, but they also kept 14 clean sheets, they outscored opponents 8 to 5 in the first 15 minutes of matches, and 10 to 9 in the final 15 minutes, RSL strongest 15 inutes of matches is the first 15 of the second half where they have an 8-3 advantage but minutes 16 to 30 and 61 to 75 they have been outscored by opponents.

The LA Galaxy have 12 players with over 1500 minutes of action this year, RSL has 13 with that many minutes and 14 that played fewer than that, while LA has 18 players who saw less than 1500 minutes of action this year.

If you look at the two times these teams faced off this year you will see two very different teams for each side, the first match featured RSL getting off to an early start and a LA Galaxy side that simply looked shell shocked and was unable to recover. The second time the teams played, RSL again got an early goal but LA continued to battle back and capitalized on a pair of unlikely mistakes by the RSL defense for both of their goals and leveraged those mistakes to get a 2-1 win. We know what LA team will show up, they have been the most consistent team in MLS for over two years, the question is which RSL side will show up, the one that started the season with 4 straight wins or the one that had no wins over the last month of the regular season?

Wildcards:

Mike Magee -

An unlikely wildcard unless you consider that it was Mike Magee that was the goal scorer against RSL in MLS Cup back in 2009, or the fact that he has both of their non-PK goals so far in the playoffs this year. Mike was actually the 3rd best scorer for LA this year with 5 goals, but perhaps nothing can speak to his importance to LA than the 3 saves he made while filling in as keeper in San Jose this year. So while everyone is talking about Landon, Beckham, and even Keane, keep your eyes on Mike Magee.

Fabian Espindola -

Perhaps no player has been more representative of RSL this year than Fabian Espindola, if you look beyond the 10 goals and 3 assists you will see the 33 times the offside flag has been raised on him, a testament to pushing the edge all year long. Fabi plays with so much passion and emotion, that like his runs they often have him on a razors edge, sometimes they are his greatest strength. That passion and emotion give him the energy and drive to work hard on both sides of the ball, fighting for every chance that he has to do something for the team, that drive him to run 60 yards after a ball that he has no business catching up to but that doesn't stop him from trying. Sometimes that passion and emotion get him in trouble, as it can lead to some rough tackles, some pushing and shoving, and sometimes it seems to overwhelm him, but when Fabi plays in control he is a handful for any defense.

Jorge Gonzalez -

So I have been fairly impressed with the officiating in the post season, no it hasn't been perfect but it at least has seen to been fair in not giving one team a distinct advantage over the other. Jorge was in charge of two RSL matches this year, our 1-1 draw at the Philadelphia Union and the 3-1 win at the New York Red Bulls. A total of 3 yellow cards were issued and fouls were fairly even in both matches. I can simply hope that we see an official who is more willing to let the teams play and decide the winner themselves than one who wants to put his stamp on the match. This is a tough assignment as more and more the two sides just don't like each other.

My RSL Starting XI:

Nick Rimando, Robbie Russell, Nat Borchers, Chris Wingert, Tony Beltran, Andy Williams, Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, Will Johnson, Fabian Espindola and Alvaro Saborio.

Bench: Kyle Reynish, Chris Schuler, Rauwshan McKenzie, Ned Grabavoy, Louis Gil, Yordany Alvarez, Paulo Jr.

My Prediction:

Since MLS Cup 2009, I think this has become the best rivalry in the league, oh I know it isn't one that the league promotes but it features two completely different teams who are finding success on the pitch and when they meet each side is willing to step things up a bit to get the win. The lineups will be similar to what they were at MLS Cup, with the biggest changes being who plays up top, but many on each side will remember that damp chilly night in Seattle and both want to play for the Cup again. Three of the last 4 matches have been decided by a goal, and each match has had a winner, two for LA and two for RSL.

While Josh Saunders did well stepping in for an injured Donovan Ricketts in Seattle and has had a decent year filling in for him this year, the reality is that he has a 2.50 GAA against RSL this year and while he has played in big matches, it doesn't come close to comparing to what Nick Rimando has done. If by chance this match goes to PK's I feel very confident that Nick is the keeper you want.

Listen these teams don't like each other much, you only need to go back to the post match shouting between David Beckham and Jason Kreis to see that. I think the deciding factors will be who can get past the pain, past the 3rd match in a week and step up. We know that Landon Donovan, like Javier Morales has been recovering from an injury and neither are at 100% of what we are used to seeing from them, which one will dig deeper for their team? We saw David Beckham in severe pain on Thursday will he be ready to go? Will Jamison Olave and/or Nat Borchers be ready to go?

Things seem to come easy for the LA Galaxy on and off the pitch, I mean rules are made around their roster, not the other way around, they play in the glitz and glamour of LA for more years than RSL has been in the league they have been the flagship franchise. RSL fights for everything, a small market team, no mega billion dollar corporation as their owner, and clearly one of the leagues blue collar teams.

Kyle Beckerman hit it on the head, RSL needs to play their game, quick passes in the midfield, dictate the pace by possession, and get the first goal. We need 55% possession, 78% or better on passing accuracy, we need more shots and shots on goal than we allow LA, and we need to limit LA to fewer than 5 set pieces in our final third of the pitch. If we can do those things we get a hard fought but well deserved 2-1 win.

OFF MY SOAPBOX