CARSON, Calif. – There are those who feel the road to the MLS Cup goes through the LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake, but Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena doesn’t subscribe to that popular theory.
One of these two teams, which meet Sunday at StubHub Center (6 p.m., ESPN) in the first leg of the two-leg, aggregate goal Western Conference Semifinals, has been to the final in three of the last four years. The Galaxy won championships in 2011 and 2012, and Real Salt Lake beat the Galaxy on penalties in 2009 to claim their first title. In 2010, the Galaxy reached the Western Conference Championship, only to fall to FC Dallas.
“I never say any of that stuff,” Arena said after training Friday. “Those are comments from people that have never walked the walk or talked the talk. It’s all garbage, that kind of talk.
“The road to the MLS Cup final is determined by the team that gets through the next two series. That’s what the road is.”
Sunday’s postseason opener will mark the third postseason meeting between the two clubs, with the Galaxy winning 3-1 in the 2011 Western Conference Championship, two years after seeing their championship dreams end at the hands of RSL in MLS Cup 2009. The Galaxy, – who will travel to Sandy, Utah for the second leg on Thursday, Nov. 7 –also won this year’s regular season series by taking two of the three meetings between the two sides. An understrength Galaxy side claimed a 2-0 at Rio Tinto Stadium on April 27, only to fall there 3-1 just over a month later. The final meeting between the sides took place at StubHub Center on Aug. 17, when the Galaxy cruised to a 4-2 win.
The Galaxy’s Robbie Keane, who finished fourth in MLS in goals scored with 16, including three in that 4-2 win, feels confident about the defending champions’ postseason chances. Last Sunday’s 1-1 tie in Seattle, in which the Galaxy rallied from an early deficit, only to be denied a certain victory when referees missed an apparent, first half goal by Omar Gonzalez, led him to feel the team is ready to make a long playoff run.
“I hope so. That’s the whole idea,” he said with a grin. “I think the game against Seattle was a good game in the way we came from a goal behind. We were solid the whole game and defended very well. That game in Seattle hopefully gave the lads confidence that when we are under pressure we can still come out and get results.”
The Galaxy will be taking on one of MLS’ most experienced team that features a formidable cast of characters led by the likes of goalkeeper Nick Rimando (1.04 goals-against average and nine shutouts), the central midfield combination of Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales, as well as top goal scorer Alvaro Saborio, who scored 12 times in 2013 despite appearing in just 16 of RSL’s 34 regular season games.
“It’s a solid team, very well-organized,” Keane said of Real Salt Lake. “It’s certainly going to be a difficult game. They have players who have been around for a very long time. It’s up to us as players to take that challenge on and enjoy the occasion and hopefully get the results we want.”
Added Landon Donovan, who has a goal and two assists in two postseason games against Salt Lake, as well as nine goals and nine assists in 18 regular season games, “It starts with their leadership, in (head coach Jason) Kreis, Beckerman, Nat (Borchers), Rimando. Those guys are good leaders and they’re winners. And they’re very talented. You could argue they’re as talented as any team in the league.”