CARSON, Calif. – After a three-goal victory over Seattle Sounders FC on Sunday, the LA Galaxy sit on the precipice of the MLS Cup Final— but they would not be in that position without the stellar play of goalkeeper Josh Saunders.
By providing timely saves and a commanding presence in the box, Saunders has led the Galaxy past the Supporters’ Shield winning San Jose Earthquakes in the Western Conference Semifinal before helping LA blank Sounders FC in a 3-0 victory in the Western Conference Championship First Leg last Sunday.
WATCH: LA, Saunders shut out Seattle
“He’s been important. He came back after a little bit from a mishap in the first San Jose game and played big in the last two games,” said LA Galaxy Head Coach Bruce Arena. “That speaks volumes about his approach and the kind of confidence that he has. He’s been a real positive influence on the group.”
The mishap that Arena speaks of was the goal in the closing stages of the Conference Semifinal first leg, when a Victor Bernárdez freekick gave the Earthquakes a 1-0 victory after the shot struck the Galaxy wall before knuckling on Saunders for goal.
Since the San Jose goal, Saunders has been nearly lights out between the pipes, having conceded only one goal in his past two matches. During those 180 minutes, Saunders has made a total of five saves to help the Galaxy to a pair of victories.
“He's responded as well as you could possibly have hoped for,” left back Todd Dunivant said. “He's been so good, I think, especially coming out on crosses, being big, being a big presence in there. When he does that, the [opposing] offensive guys think twice about going up for headers and know that if a cross comes in, a little floater, they're not even going to go for it. He's made a difference that way, and it helps us out tremendously.”
WATCH: Saunders makes the stop on Lenhart
Perhaps where Saunders has been most effective is in that willingness to come off his line and snag, or punch away, a cross. Throughout the series with San Jose and the first leg against Sounders FC, Saunders’ ability to pull down crosses and slow down play was vital to stifling two of leading offenses in MLS.
In those last two games, Saunders intercepted a total of seven crosses and punched the ball away twice.
“He comes come out for crosses and that’s something we need him to do,” said rookie Tommy Meyer. “That’s helped us out a lot, especially in these games where teams like to cross the ball a lot.”
Meyer attests that Saunders’ vocal nature has played an important role in his integration into the backline after he stepped into the position for injured center back A.J. DeLaGarza in September.
“You always hear him from behind,” said Meyer. “And it gives you more confidence to know that he’s got your back too.”
The Galaxy backline will need that confidence heading into Sunday's second leg as they face a Seattle side that will come out flying from the start, looking to erase a three-goal deficit. As Seattle look to claw their way back into the series, Saunders expects to be a busy man on Sunday evening.
“If you saw them play Salt Lake last year, we expect a raucous game, they’re going to come out and they’re going to shoot a lot, cross the ball a lot and get the ball in front of goal,” said Saunders. “It’s just defending the goal, go forward, keeping the ball and try to attack them as well.”
While some believe that the best approach will be a defensive one, the confident-Saunders doesn’t want to see a change to the game plan from LA.
“You have to approach the game the same way that you do any other one this year. I’ve always advocated that,” said Saunders. “You can’t get away from it. If you watch our team, we’re dangerous going forward, dangerous keeping the ball and we don’t want to get away from it.”