Real Salt Lake, LA Galaxy confront familiar challenges in Western Conference semifinal tie

Familiar foes Real Salt Lake and LA Galaxy will play for the second consecutive postseason. RSL emerged victorious at this stage last year with a 2-1 victory on aggregate.

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Experience provides important context for the battle ahead between Real Salt Lake and LA Galaxy over the next week.

These two teams know each other particularly well after their postseason meetings over the past six years. Some of the faces and some of the particulars have changed along the way, but the core principles remain largely the same.

It is why both clubs embrace the looming challenges ahead of the first leg at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday night. The history provides grounding for both teams as they prepare for the tense affairs poised to unfold.

"I know the guys are going to be up for the games, which is extremely important," Real Salt Lake coach Jeff Cassar told the Salt Lake Tribune earlier this week. "I know they’re not going to take them easily, because they know it’s going to be a battle and they know it’s going to take a defensive effort — and an offensive effort — just to win the game, and when everyone is realizing that against an opponent like this, we typically do very well."

RSL boasts the sort of core capable of coping with big matches. The prospect of competing with the star-studded Galaxy will not divert them from their task. This side — bolstered by the return of Chris Schuler (facial fractures) and strengthened overall by the leap made by Joao Plata this season — will not shirk its responsibilities.

DID YOU KNOW?

“Teams that have been together a long time know each other very well, and they do things consistently well,” Galaxy forward Landon Donovan told the club’s official website. “Some days they’re great. Rarely, rarely do you see them ever have a bad day. If they’re not great they’re solid in all areas. They have a lot of players who have a lot of experience in this league. They know how to play at this time and that’s what makes them difficult to play against.”

Donovan and his teammates found the assignment particularly difficult last season, but they are more suited to cope this time around. The squad is stronger on the whole with Robbie Rogers now established at left back and Gyasi Zardes presenting another potent threat going forward. It is also reinforced from the defeat in Seattle by the return of Omar Gonzalez (suspension) and Robbie Keane (undisclosed injury). Those factors buoy the Galaxy as they attempt to secure a positive first-leg result in Sandy.

“Yeah, I think we’re more prepared,” Keane told the club’s official website. “A better squad of players, more experienced players who understand how the playoffs go.”

All of that knowledge will come to bear over this two-legged tie. The way it manifests will determine which side manages to navigate through this perilous task to emerge from it.

Kyle Beckerman remains the steady hub of Real Salt Lake’s diamond midfield. RSL will need another impressive display from him to compete with the Galaxy’s strength in midfield.

Five Points

1. Focus on the middle of the field … : Both teams tend to play narrowly to flex their strength on the ball. RSL relies on its vaunted diamond to assert control in possession, while the Galaxy often prefers to play one natural central midfielder (usually Baggio Husidic) to contribute in possession and support the efforts inside. The team capable of finding a way through the muddle will emerge with a considerable advantage.

2. … and watch how RSL rotates: Kyle Beckerman continues to set the tone in his holding role, but he will need some help to cope with the threats functioning deftly in front of him and running behind him. Look for Ned Grabavoy and Luke Mulholland to each drop alongside Beckerman from time to time to provide additional support. If those rotations arrive slowly, then RSL could find itself in trouble.

3. How will RSL cope with the movement between the lines?: RSL boasts a cohesive unit capable of tracking runners willingly and thwarting those clever little combinations between Donovan and Keane. The recent defensive form (three shutouts in the final three league matches) bodes well, but Schuler — if restored immediately to the lineup, as expected — will need to step in seamlessly to make sure the cohesion remains intact.

4. Javier Morales’ search for space: Morales is a particularly savvy operator. Opposing teams key on him, but he always manages to drift into spaces to link up with other areas. Expect the veteran schemer to float onto either flank in a bid to open up passing lanes and place stress on a Galaxy defensive shape with some pockmarks exposed by its recent examinations.

5. Joao Plata and the left channel: RSL always finds a way to make potent use of their forwards in this particular area of the field. Fabian Espindola did it for years. So did Robbie Findley. Plata picked up the slack and supplemented those familiar, peeling runs toward the left corner with precision in the penalty area. Dan Gargan must monitor his positioning carefully to avoid leaving space to play in behind him. As Sounders FC showed over the past two weeks, the Galaxy are particularly vulnerable when those central defenders start to compensate for absent fullbacks and find themselves in one-versus-one situations.