Real Salt Lake look to end Landon Donovan’s career on Sunday

There is little doubt that Landon Donovan is the best player in MLS history, he probably is the best American soccer player to date, and while many fans are torn about him, cheering him in the red, white and blue of the USMNT, while booing him when he is in the various colors of the LA Galaxy, the reality is that love or hate him, everyone respects him.  On Sunday Real Salt Lake will look to end his MLS career, and given the history between these two teams over the years both in the regular season and post season it could go either way.  In regular season action RSL is 6-8-1 in matches played in LA, a 0-1 loss at StubHub Center in July was the balance for a 1-0 win by RSL there on opening weekend of the 2014 season.

All time these two teams are tied at 11-11-7, after the 0-0 draw last weekend at Rio Tinto Stadium.  These two are frequent opponents in the post season, in 2009 it was a PK shootout win for RSL at MLS Cup, in 2011 LA beat RSL in the Western Conference Finals on their way to a MLS Cup win, and last year it was RSL with 2-1 aggregate win in the Conference semifinals on their way to another MLS Cup appearance.  So Sunday will be two teams so very familiar with each other than winning or losing is often a matter of inches, shots off the framework or of the fingers of diving keepers are the norm, and it could likely come down to who can punish the other team’s mistakes.  RSL have a bit of momentum despite the draw at home, they finished the regular season with two wins and a draw, while the Galaxy finished it with a draw and two losses.  RSL gave up just a single goal in their 4 matches in October, while the Galaxy gave up 6, which was very unusual for the Galaxy who ended the regular season with an insane +32 goal differential as the league’s top scoring team with 69 goals scored, and tied for the league’s best defense with just 37 goals allowed.  The Galaxy were mighty good at home with a 12-1-4 record, their only loss was opening day to RSL, the amassed 44 goals at home while only giving up 14 goals for a +30 home goal differential.

So what will Real Salt Lake need to do in order to get past the Galaxy and on to the Western Conference Finals for the 5th time in the last seven years (08 ,09, 11, 13)?

Last Saturday RSL had 16 shots to just 3 for LA, RSL had 6 on goal to just 1 for LA, yet the score ended 0-0, the reality is that a 0-0 score again wouldn’t be awful for RSL it would lead to extra time (how we beat LA last year) and maybe PK’s (yeah remember 2009).  So for RSL it is simply score as many goals as LA does and you move on to the next round, this is where we get very happy for the away goals rule.  One of the stats from last weekend that was the most impressive to me was that LA completed just 54% of their 78 passes in the final third, this is why their didn’t get many shots off and why only one required Nick Rimando to make a save.  If RSL can dominate with their defense like that again, it will take something very amazing for RSL not to advance.

So what was behind that stat?  Nat Borchers, he was a beast all night and having Chris Schuler back at his side clearly brought out the best in the bearded one.  This also freed Schuler to go move forward more often which closed down opportunities for LA, if you look at where RSL recovered or intercepted the ball it was much higher up the pitch than what LA did:

RSL vs LAG 1

11 times RSL’s defenders (including Kyle Beckerman) recovered or intercepted the ball while on the LA half of the pitch, compared to 5 for the LA defenders (including Juninho).  This is in part what disrupted LA’s attempts to attack, RSL simply wouldn’t allow it.

You could also see how dominant RSL was in the fact that in the match LA had just 3 “key passes”, Javier Morales had 4 by himself and RSL ended the night with 8.  Should RSL be able to repeat these things it likely force LA into a more and more physical style, something we saw on Saturday when they committed 24 fouls to RSL’s 11.  That frustration could have lead to a couple of red cards, it sure should have lead to more than the 2 yellow cards LA got on Saturday.  Of course I to be honest have to admit that RSL had a couple of fouls that were very rough, that could have lead to more than the 2 yellows they got.

So one of the big questions heading into Sunday is, do you stick with Luis Gil who put in one of his very best performances in a RSL kit last weekend, or bring back regular starter Ned Grabavoy?  I made the comment to another photographer during the match that we were seeing Luis Gil grow up in front of our eyes, he showed more strength on and off the ball than I can ever remember seeing, then add in the skill checks all night on the ball, and his willingness to take shots from distance (quality shots) and I say you go with the hot hand and to me that is Luis.  For years we have heard that Gil is the future of RSL, well the future is now and given how dominant RSL was on Saturday, I say you don’t change anything you don’t have to.

I was a bit surprised that RSL didn’t make a single sub last weekend, but given how good everyone was playing I can understand it a bit more.  Still at home I thought maybe a move to bring on a 3rd forward might have been worth the risk, one thing is for sure I expect that RSL will use their subs this time around.  With the possibility of extra time, we may see those subs held until late but I do think while Jeff Cassar may have been a bit conservative during the first leg, with everything on the line, I expect no such thing on Sunday.  I think this is another tough match as we get every match between these two teams face off, my head says this one ends up a 1-1 draw but I am going with my heart and going to pick a 2-1 RSL win and on to the Western Conference finals we will go.

That’s How I See It

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