When Real Salt Lake met the Galaxy in June at Home Depot Center, forward Yura Movsisyan was able to beat LA Galaxy goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts for a goal en route to a 2-0 victory. Of course, LA was without their high-priced talent, Landon Donovan and David Beckham. Photo: Michael Janosz, isiphotos.com
Before the MLS playoffs began, the consensus was that the teams in the Western Conference were more prepared than their Eastern Conference counterparts to the lift the MLS Cup in Seattle on November 22nd. Little did we know then how prophetic that sentiment was, as the peculiarities of the MLS playoff system leave us with both entries in the Final representing the West. The Los Angeles Galaxy — the top seed out of the West entering the post-season — and Real Salt Lake — vanquishers of the best the Eastern Conference had to offer — face off at Qwest Field with the 2009 MLS Championship and the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy at stake.
One of the lessons learned in this post season was how futile it was to predict the winners of the matches ahead of time. In a league that features a competitive balance among its member teams, forecasting match results may as well be done with the flip of a coin. Yet having said that, a comprehensive analysis of the qualities of both the Galaxy and RSL should indicate whether one team of the other should be considered the favorite to lift the MLS Cup. In this preview we look at the players that should impact the result, the coaches who lead their teams through the MLS playoff minefield, and those intangibles that may swing the momentum toward one team or the other.
The Los Angeles Galaxy relies heavily on their team captain Landon Donovan to spark the offense. Despite missing five league games due to US national team duties, Donovan played a part in half of the goals tallied for a Galaxy team that scored the second fewest goals in the Western Conference. His 12 goals and 6 assists in 2009 clearly cemented his status as MVP of the team. "The Specialist" David Beckham also plays a big part in the Galaxy offense — see his pinpoint cross to Donovan in the Chivas USA first round, second leg victory that set-up a subsequent penalty kick for the winning goal. Looking past the star power, the players that need to step up in the attacking third are strikers Edson Buddle and Mike Magee. Neither player has shined this season, especially an injury-slowed Buddle; however, if either player can take advantage of the service expected from Donovan and Beckham, they will get scoring opportunities against a rather ordinary RSL defense.
If the Galaxy has one weakness as a team, it is with their bench. Whether due to injuries or out-of-form players, LA will notice some significant drop-off in quality when their substitutes are called upon. Attacking players Jovan Kirovski and Alan Gordon are experienced, but don't start for a reason. Gordon especially seems to be a roll of the dice when he plays — great at times against Houston last week, but other times often slow and ineffective. In the midfield, national team players Eddie Lewis and Chris Birchall could spark the Galaxy offense if needed late in the game.
Salt Lake enters the MLS Cup Final with a Jekyll-and-Hyde offense — a dominating performance against the Columbus Crew in the first round, and a scoreless draw in the Eastern Conference Final — that relies on the speedy duo of Robbie Findley and Yura Movsisyan, with a possible replacement in playmaker Fabian Espindola. Unfortunately for RSL, their strikers have not finished the excellent scoring opportunities afforded them throughout the 2009 season. Coach Jason Kreis has instilled an attacking mindset to his team, which seems to naturally flow toward the opponent's goal. Unfortunately, that offensive pressure has not paid dividends with prolific scoring. Now would be a great time for team leading scorer Findley to show his skills to the soccer nation, and Movsisyan — with one foot out the MLS door — to focus on finishing his RSL career on a high note.
Real Salt Lake certainly does not suffer from a lack of quality and depth in the midfield. Attacking midfielder Javier Morales, in tandem with Kyle Beckerman, give RSL a potent partnership in the center of the field. Both looked sharp so far this post-season, and will be asked to show poise in controlling possession against the Galaxy. Out on the wings young Canadian Will Johnson and the veteran Andy Williams provide good skill going forward. In former US national team hero Clint Mathis, RSL has a game-changing substitute that will use his poise on the ball to make a difference. Also available on the RSL bench is last weeks's penalty kick hero Ned Grabavoy, who provides ample relief in the midfield. A very solid player, Grabavoy can cover in defense when the team is leading or contribute confidently in the attack if RSL needs some late game offensive heroics. Altogether, the attack-minded line-up will create a host of offensive chances on the night — the question remains whether they can find the back of the net.
Advantage: Slightly in favor of the Los Angeles Galaxy, with their proven leadership and experience trumping the physical skills of the dynamic Real Salt Lake players.
The Galaxy was the worst defensive team in 2008, so they could only be expected to improve this season. From his midfield position, Dema Kovalenko has proven to be very steady when required to play defensively. Even David Beckham gets into the action when he drops back to help shepherd the ball out of the Galaxy end — as effective as he is in this role, he is more dangerous higher up the field. Central defending partners Gregg Berhalter and Omar Gonzalez have proven to be a dominating force in the middle for the Galaxy, as they anchored a squad that let in half as many goals (31 versus 62) in 2009 as compared to last season. Combined with outside backs Sean Franklin, Todd Dunivant, and A.J. DeLaGarza, Los Angeles boasts a very stingy back line. Any post-season jitters were exorcised in the first round, first leg 2-2 draw with Chivas USA, and to date the Galaxy has not conceded a goal in more than 250 minutes of playoff action. Throw in the dominating presence of goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, and Los Angeles appears primed to continue that scoreless streak this Sunday.
The price Real Salt Lake pays for their attack-first mentality is that their defenders are often exposed on the counterattack. The pressure on talisman defender Jamison Olave and the remainder of his back four can be alarming at times, but they have in goalkeeper Nick Rimando a formidable backstop. Not an imposing presence at just 5'-9" in height, Rimando clearly knows where to position himself during the flow of play and on set pieces. He masterfully controlled the Eastern Conference Final shoot-out with three saves on the Chicago Fire. Even when he didn't reach the ball, he correctly guessed which way to dive on all but one shot attempt. Rimando may be the perfect antidote to David Beckham's patented dangerous set piece kicks.
Advantage: Cleary goes to the Galaxy — they have found the right combination of youthful vigor and veteran know-how in their back four, and are playing with confidence.
Los Angeles was a mess during the summer of 2008. They had just lost a 3-2 decision to San Jose on a late goal by Ryan Cochrane, and a very disturbed David Beckham groused to the press after the game about the team's lack of confidence. We would later learn in Grant Wahl's book The Beckham Experiment that this was the low point in a disappointing season for the club. The players were not communicating, and head coach Ruud Gullit put his Hollywood area home up for sale. Just weeks later, after a sweep of the dysfunctional front office and head coach by team president Tim Leiweke, one time DC United and US national team coach Bruce Arena was handed the reigns to the Galaxy. Done paying his penance for an ignominious term as leader of the New York Red Bulls, Arena came to LA prepared for the spotlight that came with coaching the world's most famous player.
While the remainder of 2008 continued to be a circus at The Home Depot Center, and David Beckham continued to make overtures about being unhappy in America, the stage was being set for a return to prominence in 2009. Arena cleaned house of those he could or would not work with, and then added the mid-level veterans to his roster that he knew could be successful in the MLS environment. Savvy draft picks in defenders and ex-Maryland teammates Omar Gonzales and A.J. DeLaGarza solidified a porous defense now anchored with veterans Tony Sanneh and Gregg Berhalter. And even with Beckham continuing his loan stay in Milan past the start of the regular season, the Galaxy began a 12-game stretch to start the season that saw the team lose only once. The team began to gel around their coach, and the confidence to win grew each week. Even the summer return of Beckham couldn't derail the Galaxy this season — Arena made sure he would integrate back into the squad seamlessly — and they went on to finish the 2009 regular season atop the Western Conference. Bruce Arena brought the Galaxy from worst to first in just one season. This Sunday marks his fourth trip to the MLS Cup Final — where he won twice at the helm of DC United — and the sixth trip for the Galaxy franchise.
Meanwhile, the scene is much different in Utah, where head coach Jason Kreis, the first player in franchise history, is in his third year in charge of Real Salt Lake. Hired shortly after retiring as a player from the club early into the 2007 season, Kreis has quickly become a respected manager around the league. Upon his retirement as a player, Kreis had scored 108 career goals in MLS — good for best in league history at the time. That attack-minded attitude became his trademark when it came to tactical decisions at RSL. By employing constant pressure on their opponents, Salt Lake continues to create myriad scoring opportunities. His win/lose/tie record is nothing to be excited about — RSL actually lost more games than they won this season, but his teams have done enough to get into the MLS playoffs the past two seasons. After a narrow loss in last year's Western Conference Finals, Kreis and RSL have redeemed themselves with passage to the Cup final through the Eastern Conference Championship this post season. He preaches self-belief and hard work to his players, most exemplified by midfielder Kyle Beckerman's performances this season, and a never-give-up attitude. Considered by many to be the underdog throughout these playoffs, especially when it comes to games on the road, Kreis has employed his attack-first tactics to perfection in toppling two very tough opponents in the Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire.
Advantage: Again this tilts toward the Los Angeles Galaxy — Bruce Arena has the trophies to prove it.
There are few certainties in sports — that's why they play the games — save for the underdog crying out for respect against a seemingly formidable opponent. Since the 2009 playoffs began, Real Salt Lake has worn the underdog label with aplomb. Their surprising success in reaching the MLS Cup would not have been predicted entering their final game of the season against the Colorado Rapids. With just one win in their five prior matches, RSL required a win over their Rocky Mountain rivals just to sneak into the playoffs as the eighth seed (after winning tiebreakers against those same Rapids and DC United) with 40 points. Their season ending form did not suggest a run to the MLS Cup Final, but that is just what they were able to accomplish against the best in the East. Brimming with confidence after three straight victories — the last two on the road — RSL eagerly await another chance to surprise MLS followers.
The field and weather conditions on Sunday may contribute an advantage to Real Salt Lake in addition to their confidence of play. In a remarkable facet for an MLS Championship game, Qwest Field features a much maligned artificial playing surface. RSL may find that to their liking, as until their recent move to Rio Tinto Stadium, the club once contested their home matches on a similar field at Rice-Eccles Stadium at the University of Utah. Additionally favoring RSL on Sunday, the weather forecast calls for cool temperatures with a moderate chance for rain — much closer to what you might see in their home state of Utah and not sunny Southern California.
Down in Los Angeles, the three year soap opera of Galaxy soccer that has followed David Beckham's historic signing takes an interesting turn with their MLS Cup Final appearance. As mentioned earlier, LA was last in the league at the end of 2008 and looking nothing like the "Super Club" that former GM Alexi Lalas proclaimed them to be. However, with the coaching guidance of Bruce Arena and the leadership of veteran signings Gregg Berhalter and Tony Sanneh, the Galaxy's turnaround has been impressive. Sanneh in particular has been a revelation for the club, despite not logging many meaningful minutes during 2009. Virtually retired from the game when Arena signed him earlier this year, the veteran has brought a professionalism to the club that many felt was lacking. Add in other veterans like Chris Klein and Eddie Lewis, and there is a swagger to the Galaxy's play that was missing during three prior years of missing the post season.
And, of course, there is David Beckham. The face of MLS is on the precipice of achieving a remarkable feat in professional soccer — league championships for three different clubs in as many countries. Beckham has been often criticized for his seemingly disinterested approach to playing in the U.S., but nobody watching this post season can fault him for his efforts. His intensity on the field, sometimes viewed as a form of petulance, can lift an entire team to success. Now on the biggest stage for soccer in America, David Beckham will want to add "MLS Champion" to his resume.
Advantage: Make it four in a row for the Los Angeles Galaxy - the next chapter of the Beckham experiment is poised for success.
We looked at four categories for analysis, with the edge in each going to the Los Angeles Galaxy. It is hard to argue against Donovan, Beckham, and the rest of the crew; but Real Salt Lake will be competitive. Don't look for a blowout, instead expect a comfortable win for the Galaxy this Sunday in Seattle.