The first leg of the Western Conference Semifinals between the LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake left both teams feeling confident. On one hand, the teams remain level with both teams unable to score a goal in the first leg. On the other, they are both optimistic about their chances to advance, feeling like they are in a really good position. That be said, RSL came out of the first leg looking like the dominant force.
For the first 30 or so minutes of last Saturday's match. The LA Galaxy controlled the run of play and more than their fair share of the possession. The Galaxy even had an early attempt on goal when Robbie Keane let off a howler 20 yards out and forced Nick Rimando to make his only save on the night.
Not only was RSL battling the Galaxy players, but also the 20 mph winds in their faces. Still, Real Salt Lake continued to push. Alvaro Saborio nearly scored in the 12th minute off a Javier Morales corner when the ball went just wide of the right post. The Galaxy, using the win in their favor, continued to control the match for 11 more minutes.
In the 23th minute, however, the tide began to turn. The RSL back line began to push up and pressure the Galaxy midfielders. This changed the form of the Galaxy drastically as they began to turn the ball over more and more in the midfield.
The pressure that Real Salt Lake exerted in the midfield altered the match entirely. During the season the Galaxy led the league in chances created both from set pieces and the run of play. During this match, however, Real Salt Lake held them to three shots with only one on target while RSL managed to let off 16 shots - six of which were on target and two were blocked.
So what happened that so drastically shifted the favor of the match in RSL's favor?
Before the 31st minute, the LA Galaxy, for all intends and purposes, controlled the match with flashes of RSL brilliance but no dominate play on the ball. During this time the Galaxy was able to create two scoring chances - one on target and one blocked - to RSL's three - all off target. The match was tipped in LA's favor with more possession and creating better scoring chances.
With RSL's defense beginning to put pressure on the Galaxy's midfield a quarter of the way through this match, Chris Wingert was able to make the first interception for RSL. Acting as a precursor, winning the ball in the midfield is what began to neutralize LA and put RSL's attack in motion.
The Claret-and-Cobalt were able to make four more interceptions near the midline during the first half and create two more shots - one of which was on target. Going into halftime the match looked to be evening out with the exception of possession which was still in the Galaxy's favor.
The second half was a different tale with RSL coming out swinging. RSL continued to attack up the left side with great success, pulling the Galaxy out of position time and time again. In addition, RSL continued intercepting the ball in the midfield effectively stonewalling LA's attacking corps. In addition, RSL's interceptions provided a steady supply of possession to create scoring chances from. For example, in the second half alone, RSL registered 11 more shots while the Galaxy were lucky to get off one which was not even on target.
On the night, RSL made 14 interceptions - all in the midfield - thanks to the world-class defensive work by a team that has made just that a habit in the MLS postseason. Of those 14 interceptions, four were in their half while the other ten were in their opponent's half. Alternatively, the Galaxy were not able to make one interception in their attacking half.
Real Salt Lake was effectively locking their opponents into their defensive duties, preventing any goal scoring opportunities to be created. Specifically referencing the data: LA lead the league in the regular season with a 76 percent pass completion rate in the attacking half. It was cut down to only 61 percent during this match by the Claret-and-Cobalt. In other words, the deadly duo for LA - Robbie Keane and Gyasi Zardes - simply were not able to get the ball.
The LA Galaxy will look to change this during the second leg of this semifinal in Carson, Calif., this Sunday, November 9. LA will likely replace Baggio Husidic, who was completely overrun on the left flank, with Stefan Ishizaki. Ishizaki is considered to bring more of an attacking dynamic to the midfield than his counterpart Husidic. Ishizaki will look to get more into the attack and tip the scales into LA's favor. Real Salt Lake will have to be weary of this, but it could possibly leave more room for players like Ned Grabavoy and Wingert to maneuver on the left wing.
Speaking of Nedinho, I would expect him to take the place of Luis Gil in the starting lineup in LA. I see him as more of the defense minded Baggio Husidic to Luis Gil's Stefan Ishizaki. Grabavoy is known for his great two-way play which will come in handy. That being said, I would also expect to see Gil - coming off a fabulous performance last week - to be RSL's super-sub of the match.
If RSL is able to step up in California like they did last Saturday, it seems like this semifinal will be short and sweet. Playing with one defensive mind while still creating chances will be vital to Real Salt Lake's game plan. If RSL is able to do this, RSL could repeat their first match of the 2014 Season where they beat LA at home.
How do you think RSL was able to neutralize the LA Galaxy? How will the Galaxy and Real Salt Lake approach the second leg? What do you think? Share your opinions in the comments section below.