For the second year in a row, the LA Galaxy will take on the Houston Dynamo in MLS Cup.
LA and Houston won their respective Conference Finals on Sunday, with both teams hanging on to big first leg leads to advance to Cup on Dec. 1 at the Home Depot Center. Both sides won 4-2 on aggregate, with Houston tying DC 1-1 at RFK Stadium in the afternoon before LA lost 2-1 to knockout Seattle – which, of course, bounced RSL in the Western Conference Semifinals – in the evening.
Interestingly, LA’s win over Sounders FC marks the first time that the team that knocked RSL out of the playoffs won’t compete in MLS Cup. The three previous teams that had eliminated the Claret-and-Cobalt from the postseason – New York in 2008, Dallas in 2010 and LA last year – all went on to qualify for Cup, with LA winning the whole thing last season.
MLS Cup will kickoff at 2:30 p.m. MT on Saturday, Dec. 1 at the Home Depot Center. The match will be broadcast live on ESPN, TeleFutura, TSN and RDS.
Some big playoff news last night, as LA defeated San Jose 3-1 to advance to the Western Conference Final and Houston held on against Sporting Kansas City to move on to the Eastern Conference Final.
Whichever team advances from tonight’s Western Conference Semifinal second leg between RSL and Seattle will travel to LA to take on the Galaxy in the first leg of the Western Final on Sunday night. If RSL advances, the Claret-and-Cobalt would host the Galaxy in the Conference Final’s second leg on Sunday, Nov. 18.
Houston advancing in the East keeps RSL’s dream of hosting the MLS Cup Final on Dec. 1 alive. The fifth-seeded Dynamo was the only Eastern Conference Semifinalist that finished with fewer regular season points than RSL and – as such – they’re the only side that would have to travel to Rio Tinto Stadium for MLS Cup.
Obviously, there’s a ton of work to be done for RSL to get to that point. First up: Tonight’s Western Conference Semifinal second leg against Seattle at Rio Tinto Stadium. Winner of the match goes through. Kick’s at 8 p.m. MT and a very, very limited number of tickets are still available. We’ll see you out here.
Real Salt Lake took a step in the right direction Saturday night, beating LA Galaxy 2-1 at the Home Depot Center, placing them five points clear of the defending champions and in second place in the Western Conference.
Here are some interesting numbers from the Claret-and-Cobalt’s victory in Southern California.
RSL is now sitting on a four-game winning streak across all competitions after Saturday’s victory. In addition, Saturday’s game was the fourth multi-goal game of 2012 for Claret-and-Cobalt forward Fabían Espíndola.
Real Salt Lake’s record at the Home Depot Center in 2012. RSL outscored its opposition 12-2 in its four games at the Carson, Calif. facility this year.
Real Salt Lake is the first team in MLS history to leave the Home Depot Center with two wins against LA Galaxy in a single season.
The number of goals Fabían Espíndola has at the Home Depot Center in 2012. The Argentine forward – who, in addition to his two goals on Saturday, scored twice at Chivas USA on June 16 and once at L.A. on March 10 – also has three assists at the HDC this season.
The amount of minutes it took for the Galaxy and RSL to notch all three goals on Saturday night, one from the Irishman Robbie Keane (17’) and two from Fabían Espíndola (25’ & 28’).
Saturday’s victory extended RSL’s club record to 17 wins in the 2012 regular season.
Real Salt Lake’s 2-1 win at L.A. on Saturday was a bit strange in that all three goals – all scored before the 28th minute – didn’t suggest much tactically. All of the goals were nicely taken, but they were in such close proximity to each other that a natural lull in defending might be as much the culprit as anything else.
Tactically, it was in the remaining 75 minutes in which the match really played out. Indeed, the more tactically fascinating portion of the match was the second set of 45 minutes. It is, as always, a funny game.
Saturday's match was a chippy affair, with RSL conceding 12 fouls and possession changing hands at times rapidly. Despite the foul count (surprisingly just below RSL's season average of 13), they were all basically in the middle third. This had two practical effects: 1) Play was broken up and the Galaxy didn't have a chance to build toward goal. 2) David Beckham and Juninho, when taking free kicks, were too far off to really put them toward goal, so they were limited to lofted free kicks into the box. RSL had no particular problem dealing with these, though there were a few tight moments.
The Galaxy still got off plenty of shots, 20 to be exact. But seven of those were outside the box, well above even their average of three; of those, three were blocked, two were saved by Nick Rimando, and two were off target entirely. A further seven shots inside the box were blocked.
Excepting the goal by Robbie Keane, RSL did quite well to sniff out those chances with timely blocks. It was a fine performance on the defensive side of the ball: Nat Borchers had three blocks, Jamison Olave had two, and Tony Beltran and Alvaro Saborio each had two. It's particularly illustrative that Saborio had a couple: The man's always back on set pieces, and one or two instances aside, he's been vital there throughout 2012.
Closing out the match
When Jason Kreis used his final substitution to send Paulo Jr. on for Javier Morales, questions inevitably popped up about Kreis's game management. His first two subs were more defensively minded: Chris Schuler on for Tony Beltran and Yordany Alvarez on for Jonny Steele had the distinct feeling of Kreis battening down the hatches.
But when Paulo came on, he brought with him pace, energy and a desire to unleash attacks. He wasn't brought in to keep everyone sitting back — he brought with him an impetus to get forward and challenge the Galaxy defense alongside Espindola and Saborio. Four key passes (passes leading directly to shots) following his arrival in the 89th minute speaks to his impact.
It was not an intuitive substitution by Jason Kreis, but that elusive ability to spot a weakness in defenses seen in his playing and managerial careers requires an especially keen mind. At times, Kreis has been criticized for his substitutions, but this time, he got it quite right. Late on, when one would expect the Galaxy to be issuing their final thrusts at Real Salt Lake, they were worried about conceding a third. A goal didn't result — but at that point, all RSL needed was to distract their opponent.
The Los Angeles Galaxy is a tough side to play, not least because they've dumped huge amounts of money into their attacking front. But money doesn't exactly win matches — scoring goals does.
A remarkable division of responsibilities has seen the Galaxy spread the bulk of their scoring between four players: Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, Juninho, and David Beckham. The latter two are known for their distance shooting, so let's start there.
Long shots: Juninho & Beckham
Juninho is one of those elusive midfielders who has a killer long-range shot. He's the Galaxy's leading passer, with his stats clocking in at about 56 passes per match with 87 percent accuracy, but nearly as important to the team is his ability to smash the ball from well outside the box. Five of his seven goals this season have come from beyond the 18, a rate only bested by his English comrade Beckham.
David Beckham, complaints about hair, hype and histrionics aside, has been one of the best players in MLS over the last few years. Whatever complaints are made about him, a quick reference to his seven goals — all from distance, four from free kicks — shows him as a frightening character to face off against.
To shut down the two, Real Salt Lake – which has only allowed two goals from beyond the 18 this year – will need to continue its fine efforts at closing players down from outside the box. This is where the absence of injured midfielder Ned Grabavoy will hurt. Likely fill-in Luis Gil – as much as he provides good attacking movement – isn’t always going to be in the right defensive positions.
It will take some excellent coaching, both from Jason Kreis and from the players on the pitch, to stop the pair from being overtly dangerous. Shut them down, and half of the worry is gone, so long as RSL isn’t busy conceding fouls near the edge of the box, or, as the area’s known in some circles, the Beckham Free Kick Zone.
In the box: Keane & Donovan
Robbie Keane is a striker proven at a high level, and that's largely because he's constantly working toward scoring. His 13 goals this season are no fluke: the man has a killer instinct. Of all MLS players this season to have taken at least five shots inside the box, he is the most accurate at 72 percent shot accuracy and a 62 percent goal conversion rate.
He's fed in two ways: the first is by David Beckham (another reason to afford the long-pass-maestro little space on the ball), but the second is by Landon Donovan. The attacking midfielder or forward — depending on the match and who you ask — who has scored nine goals this season and found a key pass for every 13 passes he makes. He's made more key passes (74) than all but two players: Javier Morales (75) and Graham Zusi (92).
Allowing Donovan too much time to work his magic would be disastrous, and with Robbie Keane lurking about, the defense will need to be on their best behavior. With Jamison Olave back in the side after a yellow card accumulation suspension, Kreis may opt to play a higher defensive line, with the Colombian defender's closing speed hopefully proving decisive.
Weakened ranks: No DeLaGarza
LA Galaxy won't be at their best: Central Defender AJ DeLaGarza is out (and perhaps for some time), leaving a gaping defensive hole. David Beckham is also a doubt — but if there's one thing to expect, it's for David Beckham to play through it to face off against Real Salt Lake.