Before the playoffs began, the consensus was that the teams in the Western Conference were more prepared to the lift the MLS Cup in Seattle on November 22nd. Little did we know then how prophetic that sentiment was, as we now have 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 East had to offer — face off at Qwest Field with the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy at stake.
In a two-part article to conclude tomorrow, we’ll break down the aspects of both teams going into the Final. Today we’ll focus on the players — tomorrow the coaching and intangibles. And while LA versus RSL may not be the glamour match-up that some had hoped for (sorry Cuauhtemoc Blanco), the storylines for MLS Cup XIV are nonetheless compelling.
The Los Angeles Galaxy relies heavily on their team captain Landon Donovan to spark the offense. Not only as a goal-scorer (12 on the season), Donovan plays the role of provider as well (6 assists) for a Galaxy team that scored the second fewest goals in the Western Conference. “The Specialist” David Beckham also plays a big part of the offense — see his pinpoint cross to Donovan in the Chivas USA first round, second leg victory that set-up 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.
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 dynamic Robbie Findley and Fabian Espindola, with a possible replacement in Yura Movsisyan. Unfortunately for RSL, their strikers have not finished the excellent scoring opportunities afforded them throughout the 2009 season. Now would be a great time for leading scorer Findley to regain his form, and Movsisyan — with one foot out the MLS door — needs to focus on this game.
Advantage: Los Angeles Galaxy — proven leadership and experience.
Real Salt Lake unquestionably has quality and depth in the midfield. Attacking midfielder Javier Morales, in tandem with Kyle Beckerman, give the Lakers a potent duo in the center of the field. Both looked sharp so far this post-season, and will be asked to show poise in controlling possession in Seattle. Out on the wings young Canadian Will Johnson and the veteran Andy Williams provide good skill going forward, but are somewhat limited in their defensive play. Against Chicago, the midfield quartet sparkled at times — they must continue that form to keep the possession advantage in favor of RSL.
While Landon Donovan tends to contribute primarily in the attack, David Beckham often plays over the entire field. When Beckham drifts back into the defensive midfield role, he is quite effective. However, the Galaxy offense suffers without him pressing forward. LA needs Dema Kovalenko to take over the responsibility of being the primary defensive midfielder. Out on the wings, Eddie Lewis and Chris Klein have the skill and experience to make their impact in the Cup Final. Beckham holds the key for this group — he wil dictate whether they succeed of fail this Sunday.
Advantage: Real Salt Lake — better overall quality.
The Los Angeles Galaxy was the worst defensive team in 2008, so they could only be expected to improve this season. 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 match with Chivas USA, and 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.
Real Salt Lake is no slouch on defense either with talisman Jamison Olave leading his back four. But the real hero in Salt Lake is goalkeeper Nick Rimando. Not an imposing figure at just 5’-9”, Rimando clearly knows his positioning 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 guessed which way to go on all but one shot. Rimando may be the perfect antidote to David Beckham’s set piece danger in the Final.
Advantage: Los Angeles Galaxy — they have found the right combination.
RSL do not feature a marquee player the likes of Donovan or Beckham; instead they feature a roster of consistent performers. Beyond their starting XI, the Lakers field a substitutes’ bench highlighted by former USMNT hero Clint Mathis. The midfielder has often been called into games this season late in the second half to provide poise in possession and a dangerous addition to the offense. In the attack, whichever of the three front-line strikers doesn’t start the game will certainly take the field before the final whistle. Last week against Chicago it was Espindola, but Movsisyan has often played that role this season. Finally, penalty kick hero Ned Grabavoy 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.
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 ineffective. In the midfield, national team players Eddie Lewis and Chris Birchall could spark the Galaxy offense if needed late in the game.
Advantage: Real Salt Lake — Mathis is the man.
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. Having said that, and by looking at the players expected to see action this Sunday in Seattle, the Los Angeles Galaxy seems to possess the edge in quality and experience. However, there are more factors that need to be considered before making a pick for the 2009 MLS Cup — we’ll turn our attention to the coaching and intangibles in tomorrow’s continuation of the Final preview.