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LA vs. RSL playoff preview: Do or die for Western Conference rivals in knockout round

RSL has an advantage with preferred starting lineup and a chance to move on to the Western Conference Semifinals with one “win or go home” knockout game.

MLS: LA Galaxy at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

It’s nearly the end of October, and to the delight of RSL fans through a difficult couple months, it’s playoff time for Real Salt Lake. Despite a disappointing 2-1 loss in Seattle on Sunday, RSL squeaked in just above the red line at sixth place in the west, thanks to a Portland loss in Vancouver.

Now riding a seven-game winless streak, RSL (12-12-10, 46 points, 6th place) enters the playoffs with high hopes of turning things around against the LA Galaxy (12-6-16, 52 points, 3rd place) at the StubHub Center on Wednesday in a one-game knockout round that sends the winner onto the Western Conference Semifinals.

The Galaxy haven’t had the best run of form themselves, posting a 2-2-3 record in their last seven outings which includes a wild 3-3 draw against RSL at Rio Tinto Stadium on September 7th.

Both teams had an impressive home record over the entire season, each team only losing once in the confines of their own stadiums, going 8-1-8.

Match history

Unfortunately for Salt Lake, their regular-season home record won’t come into play as they travel to LA to face the the third-place Galaxy for the third and final overall match-up with the Southern California side this year.

With only two regular-season games in the head-to-head series, RSL suffered a 5-2 loss at the hands of the Galaxy at the StubHub Center on April 23rd. With all five goals coming from different players — Gyasi Zardes, Mike Magee, Emmanuel Boateng, Giovani dos Santos, and Steven Gerrard — the Claret-and-Cobalt never really got a foothold on the game as they took their first loss of the year.

In another high-scoring game that saw RSL come out with a better result, they secured a 3-3 draw with a last-minute goal from Burrito Martinez in the fourth minute of stoppage time at home on September 7th.

LA leads the all-time head-to-head series with 13 wins through 33 games with eight draws, but RSL has outscored the Galaxy 53-51 overall. In playoff meetings between them, LA has won three games to RSL’s one, although that one win came in 2009 in the form of an MLS Cup title.

Personnel and key players

The good news for RSL is that all of their most important attacking players saw some minutes against Seattle, which means the previously-injured Yura Movsisyan should be ready to go against LA and we’ll hope to see a full-strength starting lineup, minus Aaron Maund who is still out with a broken toe. Tony Beltran also missed the game against Seattle due to a back injury, and without any official updates it sounds like he could be a game day decision from coach Cassar.

The key to success for RSL will be a congruency to the attack that we’ve seen off-and-on all season long, but obviously haven’t seen gel much over the past couple of months. With their last win coming on August 26th and only two goals scored in their last six games, we’ll hope to see a re-energized front line with Martinez, Movsisyan, Plata, and Morales all heading up the attack together.

When these four players start together, RSL boasts a 5-1-8 record and has outscored their opponents 22-17 overall in the regular season, with their only loss coming on May 15th on the road against Houston with a 1-0 defeat. Clearly they’ve seen their ups and downs of injuries throughout the season since they’ve were only able to start 14 of the 34 regular season games together, but the team is much better when they’re able to put them all out from the first minute.

By the way, of the seven games in their current winless streak, Martinez/Movsisyan/Plata/Morales have only started together twice, both ending in draws (LA and SKC).

For the Galaxy, it’s looking like they’ll be without both Gyasi Zardes (foot) and Steven Gerrard (hamstring), and Robbie Keane is still listed as questionable, although there’s been no official word on whether he’ll be available for this game or not.

The key for LA in both match-ups this year against RSL has been Emmanuel Boateng, whose speed and pace down the left flank has given Beltran and company mountains of trouble. If the defense can shore up the right side and stop him from getting in behind them and from sending balls into Giovani dos Santos, RSL will have a real shot at winning this game.

Although he hasn’t done much on paper since his return, it’s almost impossible to talk about the Galaxy without mentioning Landon Donovan. The USMNT legend came out of retirement in September and has played 235 minutes and scored one goal since his return.

Playoff format

The winner of this game will move onto the Western Conference Semifinals, which is a two-leg home-and-home series. In the event of a tie in the knockout game at the end of 90 minutes, the game will move on to 30 minutes of extra time and then penalty kicks, if needed.

If RSL wins: They will host first-place and Supporters’ Shield winners FC Dallas on Sunday, October 30th in the first leg. The second leg would be in Dallas on Sunday, November 6th.

If LA wins: The Galaxy will host the second-place Colorado Rapids on Sunday, October 30th in the first leg, traveling to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park for the second leg on Sunday, November 6th.

RSL expected lineup: Rimando; Phillips, Schuler, Glad, Beltran; Sunny, Morales, Beckerman; Plata, Movsisyan, Martinez

LA expected lineup: Rowe; Rogers, DeLaGarza, Van Damme, Cole; Husidic, Larentowicz; Donovan, dos Santos, Lletget; Keane