The MLS Cup final approaches ever closer, but first there’s the small matter of divisional showdowns. Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles duke it out tonight in Los Angeles (9:00 EST, ESPN), after Sporting Kansas City and the Houston Dynamo kick things off in Kansas City (5:30 EST, Fox Soccer Channel). Then, after the two U.S. international friendlies against France and Slovenia (November 11 and 15), East and West face off on November 20.
Anything can happen in the playoffs, but smart money tips the victor of the MLS Western Conference final to hoist the cup. The Los Angeles Galaxy and Real Salt Lake finished the regular season first and third, respectively. Kansas City and Houston finished in the East’s top two spots, but only fifth and sixth overall. A massive 16 points separated first and fifth. The gulf in quality between divisions is huge. Simply put, the fixture between Los Angeles and Salt Lake will almost undoubtedly decide the outcome of the playoffs. In fairness, however, Kansas City and Houston both managed to take points off both Los Angeles and Real Salt Lake during the regular season, so there’s always a chance.
The Los Angeles Galaxy booked their spot in the conference final by knocking out the New York Red Bulls 2-1 in the home fixture, both goals coming off dead balls, both involving David Beckham—a corner and a penalty kick. (The former England international also provided the assist in L.A.’s 1-0 first leg victory in New Jersey.) Red Bulls’ Luke Rodgers had drawn first blood, doing well on an excellent through ball from Thierry Henry in the 4th minute that tied everything up on aggregate, but ultimately it didn’t matter. The Red Bulls couldn’t find another and they couldn’t defend what they had. The Galaxy’s Mike Magee scored a second goal in as many games, and Donovan converted the penalty to further his record as all-time highest scorer in the playoffs (18 total). Beckham delivered a classic corner kick for the first and earned the penalty that set up the second. Red Bulls, cup contention, no more. Blame the Brit (or perhaps the defensive frailties). In the final year of his five year contract, Beckham’s going full tilt for the cup, having never yet won the silverware (L.A. Galaxy lost the 2009 MLS Cup final on penalties–to Real Salt Lake, no less). He’s playing excellent soccer despite a back injury. The fans who once heckled him after the loan stints at AC Milan now write banners pleading with him to stay.
Real Salt Lake can thank their goal scoring ability in the first leg (3-0) for securing passage to the conference finals. Seattle led the league in goals during the regular season, but three goals was always a big ask, even at home. They nearly pulled it off, though, winning the second leg 2-0. Kasey Keller pulled off save after save and went out fighting, but the men in lime green sherbet ultimately faltered. The defeat puts an end to Keller’s 20 year career between the sticks, domestically and in Europe. Seattle vs. Los Angeles would have been a tasty fixture, but the goal deficit was too much to overcome, even with Salt Lake missing both first choice centerbacks. Both Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers exited with quad injuries in the first leg at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Los Angeles conceded the fewest goals in the league, 28, but they lost at Salt Lake 4-1 in March, so nothing is a foregone conclusion on that front. Of note, the Galaxy remains undefeated at the Home Depot Center, with 9 straight home victories, 10 clean sheets and a scoring differential of 30-9 in 2011, so Real Salt Lake will most likely need to stage an encore performance, except at Los Angeles, this time. Fortunately, forwards Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola have shown they have what it takes to do so. And with Kyle Beckerman marshalling the midfield, with Argentinian Javier Morales moving runs on the wing, they can certainly make things happen.
Eastern Conference supporters may feel the focus on the West gives them short shrift, but realistically, the MLS Cup final begins tonight, and not in Kansas City. Upsets happen, but Los Angeles has the best defense in the league, coupled with Beckham, Magee, Donovan, Chad Barrett and Robbie Keane leading the attack, anchored by Juninho in midfield. They look unstoppable. Of the three teams in contention to stop them, Salt Lake has the best shot. And so it begins this evening.