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MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on the LA Galaxy ahead of Sunday’s visit from Real Salt Lake

Nov 3, 2013, 5:23 PM EDT

Landon Donovan AP

Ahead of Sunday’s first-leg of this Western Conference semifinal, here are the must-knows about the LA Galaxy ahead of tonight’s match with Real Salt Lake:

  • Still waiting for Robbie Keane+Landon Donovan to lose

Robbie Keane’s spent two-and-a-half years in Major League Soccer, in which time the LA Galaxy have been involved in seven different playoff matchups (three in 2011; four last year). They’ve yet to lose any of them. The high-profile trio of Keane, Landon Donovan, and David Beckham produced consecutive MLS Cups after the Irishman’s arrival.

Beckham’s now gone, but giving how Los Angeles has dissected their playoff competition, it’s fair to say Keane and Donovan deserve some special consideration. While Beckham came up big in both MLS Cup finals, the partnership Keane and Donovan appear to have perfected was the main reason Bruce Arena’s teams have been able to deliver. Particularly on the counter attack, they can be frighteningly unstoppable.

RSL need to find a way to slow them down, but the teams’ last meeting was not promising. In August, Keane scored three times while leading the Galaxy to a 4-2 win in Carson.

  • Don’t forget Omar Gonzalez

Given the big defender won MVP at last year’s MLS Cup final, it’s a big of a disservice to exclude him from a list of Los Angeles’s big-time playoff performers. Yet over the course of this season, the new Designated Player has experienced some unexpected hiccups. Coinciding with the announcing of his new deal, the 25-year-old looked surprisingly vulnerable in the middle, some of his U.S. National Team mistakes creeping into his club world.

Of late, though, Gonzalez has recovered. As Bruce Arena noted mid-week, he seems to have finally settled in after perhaps struggling to justify his new contract. Gonzalez is back to his Best XI self.

Against Álvaro Saborio, he’ll be needed. Thanks to injury and international commitments, the Costa Rican striker was limited to 16 appearances this season (1346 minutes). In that time, however, he scored 12 times. Pro-rated, that’s 27 goals over the course of 34 90-minute games.

Gonzalez can handle him — he’s done so before — but he’s going to have to be the player we saw at the end of the year, not the one that played in the middle.

  • How worries should LA be able the rookies in defense?

Kofi Opare has stepped up. The second round pick out of Michigan, much like Tommy Meyer at the end of last season, has provided an unexpected boost to a defense that lost A.J. DeLaGarza. He’s a rookie in name but not in performance.

But with Todd Dunivant likely to miss Sunday’s game, Bruce Arena faces the prospect of starting two first-year players in defense. Twenty-three-year-old Greg Cochrane could get the call at left back, meaning one side of LA’s Sunday defense could have a combined 18 games of MLS experience.

Add in the theory that RSL may be one of the worst matchups for an inexperienced defense, and this has the potential to be LA’s undoing. Not only does RSL have the West’s best attack (57 goals in 34 games), but the mastery of their system leaves their team particularly adept at exploiting opponents’ errors. They’ve seen everything; they’ve accomplished everything; and they’ve consistently done it with the same style, tactics, and system. When an opening’s presented, they know what they’re supposed to do.

That’s why it may be particularly important to cut off service from Javier Morales. That task will fall on central midfielders Marcelo Sarvas and Juninho. They can’t allow the Argentine playmaker time to pick apart that inexperienced defense.

  • Another year; another goalkeeper

In 2009, Donovan Ricketts got LA to the final. The last two years, Josh Saunders has been in goal. If LA’s to made their fourth final in six seasons, though, it’s going to be with a third goalkeeper. Panamanian international Jaime Penedo will be tasked with guiding the Galaxy to a fifth MLS championship.

The newest model may be the best yet. Penedo’s been nothing short of a savior: coming in to take the reigns from Carlo Cudicini; helping Los Angeles move beyond their experiment with the long-time Chelsea backup. His save percentage is 20 points higher (77 to 57). He allows half-a-goal less per game. As Penedo asserted himself, LA made a late season charge up the West’s pecking order, briefly pulling themselves back into Supporters’ Shield contention.

Is if fair to say he’s better than the 2009 version of Donovan Ricketts? Probably not. He’s only played nine games. But he’s instilled a confidence that hasn;t existed since the big Jamaican was goal. As a result, Penedo’s addressed LA’s biggest need.

  • Home field not the be-all, end-all

We often talk about the importance of the home team getting a win in game one, but last year, Los Angeles lost the first leg of their Western Conference semifinal before eliminating the Supporters Shield winners. Their 3-1 win at San Jose rendered their 1-0 loss at home meaningless.

Salt Lake is a very tough place to play, but one bad day won’t ruin LA’s chances. This team’s more capable than most of turning a tie around on the road. While taking advantage of home field may be especially important in other series, the two-time champions are more resilient than most. A slip against RSL don’t doom their season.