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Centerbacks crucial to Salt Lake's hopes

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Ives Galarcep

Ives Galarcep is a 14-year veteran of the American soccer beat. He created and operates the popular American soccer blog, Soccer By Ives, which was voted Best American Soccer Blog by US Soccer in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Ives was also voted Best Football Writer by SoccerLens in 2010. 
 

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When Robbie Russell buried his championship-winning penalty kick in the 2009 MLS Cup Final, it did more than just give Real Salt Lake an improbable championship. It set the course for the two best teams in MLS to begin what have been two of the more impressive runs in recent memory.

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It’s tough to argue with the statement that Los Angeles and Real Salt Lake have been the two best teams in MLS over the past three years. The Galaxy have won consecutive Supporters Shields after losing the 2009 MLS Cup Final, and just set an MLS regular season record for points accumulated. RSL followed up their 2009 MLS Cup with a run to the 2011 CONCACAF Champions League Final and have played some of the most attractive soccer in the league along the way.

Tonight, the Galaxy and Real Salt Lake will play in the Western Conference final, and while it isn’t exactly the MLS Cup Final, you can argue that the winner will go into the final in two weeks as the clear-cut favorite to lift the trophy named after LA Galaxy owner Phil Anschutz.

The Galaxy come in as the top seed, and are playing at home, but this one is far from a mis-match. Only the uncertain status of starting RSL centerbacks Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers, who both suffered injuries in the first leg against Seattle, is making the Galaxy a clear favorite.

Jamison Olave is fighting to be fit in time for Real Salt Lake’s Western Conference final against Los Angeles Galaxy. (George Frey/Getty Images)

Borchers and Olave are game-time decisions, and if they can’t play then RSL will be at a considerable disadvantage against a Galaxy team that boasts the dangerous Robbie Keane as well as the immaculate set-piece delivery of David Beckham. Chris Schuler and Chris Wingert tried admirably to fill in for Borchers and Olave in central defense in the decisive second leg against Seattle, but the drop-off in quality was evident and it nearly cost Real Salt Lake its place in tonight’s West Final.

If Borchers and Olave can start, or even if one of the two can recover enough to be in the lineup, RSL will be much better equipped to not only deal with the Galaxy attack, but also to play their possession style. With Kyle Beckerman being forced to drop deep to support RSL’s back-up centerbacks, Real Salt Lake saw its midfield dominated as Seattle nearly erased a three-goal deficit in the second leg that RSL built during a masterful first-leg victory.

If Olave and Borchers are both in the lineup, then the West Final becomes a real toss-up, with the league’s two best defenses and some of the league’s best attacking players doing battle while two of the league’s best coaches try to unlock each other’s formations.

The best match-ups to watch will be in central midfield, where LA’s Juninho and RSL’s Javier Morales will be locked in an important battle, and where Beckerman and Beckham will each by trying to drive the action for the teams.

Beckham spent more time providing defensive support and closing down attackers in the New York series than he did being an offensive threat in the run of play, a role he will likely have to take up again to help keep Morales, Andy Williams and Kyle Beckerman from setting up RSL’s forwards in dangerous positions.

Morales has been vital since his return from a broken ankle. It was against these same Galaxy that Morales made his return after five months out and Morales showed in that match, a 2-1 Galaxy win, how much trouble he could cause LA. Now, with a month of games under his belt, Morales will be even more trouble to deal with, and Juninho and Beckham will need to keep him contained.

One player who will need to step up offensively for the Galaxy is Landon Donovan, who was largely invisible as an attacking threat in the New York series. He will be matched up against the tenacious and underrated Will Johnson on LA’s right flank in a duel he has to win give the Galaxy the necessary firepower to put pressure on RSL’s defense.

Another key for LA will be getting left back Todd Dunivant into the attack. RSL midfielder Andy Williams does not having the defensive qualities to cover the right flank well, something Seattle wasn’t equipped to capitalize on, but Dunivant can exploit that, and force RSL’s midfield to provide extra support for Williams, which can free things up for the rest of the LA midfield.

The reality of the LA-RSL Western Conference final is that almost every match-up you point to is a contest among the league’s elite, making the outcome difficult to call. Ultimately, the Galaxy’s home-field edge, their consistency over the course of the season, and uncertain health of the RSL defense make the Galaxy the pick to exact some revenge for that 2009 MLS Cup Final loss, and bring Los Angeles to the brink of its first championship in six years.

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