CARSON, Calif. – LA Galaxy midfielder Christian Wilhelmsson has been with the club for barely a month and is a stranger in a strange land when it comes to figuring out this MLS Cup Playoff business. But he’s certainly anxious to learn.
He’ll get his first opportunity on Saturday at The Home Depot Center when the Galaxy take on Real Salt Lake in a Western Conference showdown (6 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network, 1330 AM, LIVECHAT) that will have the feel of a postseason game and go a long way to determining the top finishers in the West.
Five teams in the conference earn postseason berths, with the top three advancing directly to the two-leg, Conference Semifinals. The fourth and fifth place finishers, however, will play in the Knockout Round with the winner advancing to face the top seed in a two-leg semifinal series.
As of today, Real Salt Lake (16-11-4 for 52 points, second place behind San Jose), the Galaxy (15-11-5, 50 points, third) and Seattle (13-7-10, 49 points, fourth) are separated by three points, with all guaranteed of at least a fourth place finish ahead of either Vancouver or FC Dallas with the Whitecaps sitting five points ahead of Dallas following their 4-0 demolition of Chivas USA on Wednesday.
The ramifications of Saturday’s game, followed by the final two regular season matches at San Jose (Oct. 21) and at home against Seattle (Oct. 28) are not lost on the Swedish international despite his general unfamiliarity with Major League Soccer. He admitted he doesn’t know much about Real Salt Lake – “We’ll have meetings tomorrow about them,” he said after training Thursday – but the importance of this match and the next two was something he’s already well aware of.
“I understand it quite well,” Wilhelmsson said. “It’s very important to get a good a position for the playoffs and to get as many points as possible in the season.
“It’s very important and I understand it.
“It’s exciting to be a part of it and to have this challenge. At the end of the season you get this extra boost and there is tension and excitement for the players so I’m looking forward to it.”
Real Salt Lake, coming off a 4-0 victory over Chivas USA and trailing San Jose by nine points in the West, is getting a superb season from Alvaro Saborio, whose 17 goals trail only the 22 by San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski in MLS. Javier Morales also has eight assists.
Saturday’s game marks a rematch of a meeting on June 20, when the visiting Galaxy overcame a 2-0 deficit and, thanks to Landon Donovan’s 68th-minute goal, stunned Salt Lake 3-2.
Donovan remembers that game vividly and its overall importance.
“I think the whole week was a turning point for us,” he said. “We came back and started going on a tear.”
The Galaxy did, indeed, beat Vancouver in their next match 3-0 but then lost at San Jose 4-3 and at home to the Philadelphia Union 2-1 before they really got their act together.
In fact, since that loss to the Union on July 4, the Galaxy are 5-0-0 at home in league play, outscoring the opposition 13-3, and 9-1-3 overall in the league.
“It (the win over Salt Lake) really gave us a belief winning a game like that after being down 2-0,” Donovan said. “What really helped is if we play them in the playoffs it gives us a belief that we can go there and do that again, so that’s good.”
“We’ve only got three games left, and they’re against three teams that we’re battling for playoff position,” he said. “You can’t ask for anything more than that.”