How good should tonight's Western Conference Final (9pm, ESPN) be? I didn't even have a chance to touch on the Jason Kreis vs. David Beckham kerfuffle from earlier this season.
The path the Los Angeles Galaxy took to the Western Conference Final is very different from the one Real Salt Lake had to deal with. By winning the Supporters Shield, LA won the right to play the worst surviving wild card team; in 2011, that meant playing the 10th best team over the course of the regular season. RSL, meanwhile, had to play 2 legs against a Seattle Sounders team that had legitimate MLS Cup ambitions.
Then again, maybe their Conference Semifinal opponents weren't as different as they might seem. The Galaxy were likely unhappy with drawing a New York team that, regardless of their total lack of decency and honor, are capable of beating anyone on their day. Any team with Thierry Henry, Joel Lindpere, Dane Richards, Luke Rodgers, and Tim Ream is an opponent to be reckoned with. NYRB may have been the last team to make the playoffs, but LA would have surely preferred to play the Colorado Rapids given the choice of wild card round victors. RSL-Seattle might have been a potential MLS Cup Final in a more reasonable playoff format, but the Red Bulls are also capable of playing as well as anyone in the league at their very best.
In any case, LA and RSL pushed through to play what would be another reasonable MLS Cup Final (RSL is truly doing it the hard way). LA had to survive a truly shaky opening 30 minutes in the second leg at the Home Depot Center, but eventually pulled it together to re-take the aggregate lead on a set piece - note to Hans Backe: Assigning the smallest player on your team to mark someone on a set piece is a bad idea - and eventually won 2-1 on the night (3-1 on aggregate) after Roy Miller inexplicably kicked David Beckham in the ribs inside the box to give away a penalty kick. Beckham entered the game with a back injury and looked to have picked up a concussion after an awkward landing (right down to having trouble walking straight as the trainer helped him off), yet carried on to deliver one of his finest MLS performances before subbing off in obvious pain.
RSL, at full strength in the first leg, showed us what they're capable of: A 3-0 dismantling of the Seattle Sounders, who had legitimate hopes of winning MLS Cup. It was a comprehensive win - RSL were mentally, physically, technically, and tactically superior - and it happened despite RSL seeing Jamison Olave depart with a quad strain after just 32 minutes and fellow center back Nat Borchers come off with a knee problem with 11 minutes to go. While their 2nd leg performance was less about being the better team and more about hanging on for dear life, RSL still showed the mental strength they would like to be known for in holding on despite playing a completely unfamiliar back four.
Both of these teams value the ball, but their methods are different. LA will play a 442 designed to get the ball to Beckham and allow him to pick out runners with mid- and long-range passes. The elusiveness of Donovan, Keane, and Mike Magee, paired with the always-running Chad Barrett, can leave even the most well-drilled defenses in some bad spots. Bruce Arena's Galaxy are a pragmatic bunch; if it behooves them to simply take the air out of the game, they are perfectly capable of making things slow and choppy.
RSL, meanwhile, play a narrow 4312 designed to allow tight combination passing all over the field. The width comes from the outside backs and roving forward Fabian Espindola, but many times that width is used to stretch teams enough to penetrate through the middle of the field. RSL's movement off the ball is also a big part of what they do, and their narrow look often leaves them in good defensive starting positions in the event of a turnover.
The Galaxy will start in a straightforward 442:
There is only one question mark for Arena, but it's an enormous one. Beckham came into the game fighting off the same back injury that has been nagging him for months, then came up stumbling from an awkward landing in the first half. Later, Beckham took a hefty kick in the ribs from Roy Miller in the process of winning a penalty kick, and subbed off in what looked like clear discomfort once the game was clearly in hand.
It would be a real shock for Beckham to miss this game, but the possibility that he can't go does exist. If that's the case, Arena will have to choose between using Chris Birchall - with Juninho taking most of Beckham's playmaking duties - or asking Michael Stephens to give his best impression of Becks (sans silly voice). If it's Birchall, he'll need to do better when RSL plays between the lines than he did against Henry and NYRB; it took until the 2nd half for Birchall to figure out where Henry likes to play, even though the Frenchman has been playing in the left-center channel for many years and is rather famous for doing so. RSL will feast on a similarly naive performance, regardless of how much better LA is with Juninho in the fold.
In either case, losing Beckham for this game would be a potential disaster. At this point in the playoffs, Beckham would take my MVP title. It hasn't just been about his stellar set piece service or the destabilizing force his passing range is; it's been about pure effort. Even when NYRB pulled Henry back to outnumber LA in central midfield (not to mention replacing Rafael Marquez with the much harder-working Dax McCarty), LA never really looked like they were struggling in terms of numbers. Birchall's positioning was a big problem, but the Galaxy were not being overrun despite the numerical disadvantage they were at. Most of the credit falls to Beckham, who did the kind of dirty work we associate with guys like Brian Carroll or Jeff Larentowicz.
Getting back to Beckham's distribution for a second, it will be particularly crucial against RSL. At Seattle, we saw what can happen if RSL doesn't get Andy Williams to push further forward, which opens space for Robbie Russell to overlap. With Beckham in, both players will be forced to play more conservatively, which in turn will mean a lower threat to the LA goal and more time for LA to pass their way out of their own end (due to Williams not being able to join Alvaro Saborio, Fabian Espindola, and Javier Morales in pressuring high). Tactically, Beckham changes everything for both teams.
Moving on to RSL:
RSL has major issues at center back. Both Olave and Borchers are said to be traveling to LA, but no one will know the status of either until kickoff. The rumor is that Borchers is closer to being able to play than Olave, and that's reflected here. If Olave can play, he'll play the right-center spot and Borchers will slide over alongside Chris Wingert. If neither is fit, look for the same Russell-Schuler-Wingert-Beltran back four that Seattle took advantage of.
For RSL, the game is all about getting on the front foot. If they're the attacking team, they'll also be more sturdy defensively, and more likely to force turnovers in the Galaxy half. Landon Donovan usually does well when tasked with a defensive job (Gerardo Torrado can tell you all about it if you ask him), but Arena will hardly want to ask the best American attacker in MLS with thinking defense-first.
If forced to defend, however, LA's use of the full width of the field will create real problems for RSL no matter who plays center back. Playing a narrow midfield is a risk; if done right, you will likely control the game. If your opponent manages to move the ball quickly enough, however, you are essentially conceding the wings. There was a time where that just meant preparing for a bombardment of crosses; in the modern game, it means doing a ton of 1v1 defending. That means potential fouls, or potential slicing runs between the outside backs and the center backs.
The big surface at the HDC is tailor-made for LA's approach, and defensively it will force RSL to play wider than they prefer. However, LA's defense ended up looking rather ordinary against NYRB's attempts at possession play - has Omar Gonzalez looked worse all season? - and RSL is a superior exponent of that style. We should have a really intriguing game on our hands as a result.
I know it might be crazy to pick against LA at the HDC. Their record there in all competitions, including their "away" game against Chivas USA, is 16W-5T-0L, and their goal differential is +26. They haven't so much as drawn at home since July 4th, a streak of 10 games (7 in MLS, 3 in the CONCACAF Champions League). There is no better home side in the league.
However, RSL is capable of springing the upset. NYRB created their chances despite getting surprisingly little out of Lindpere and Richards on the wings; Espindola alone will likely get more done drifting wide than those two did in NYRB's second leg loss. LA also had problems coping with Henry in a deep role, and Javier Morales offers up a similar challenge without sacrificing a forward to do so.
There is also a question of depth: If LA's forwards get tired or lose focus - always possible with Barrett - they're calling on Adam Cristman (just not very good), Miguel Lopez (hasn't played much at all in months) or Paolo Cardozo (erratic). It's no mistake that their leading playoff scorer is Magee; this team doesn't currently have a striker that can guarantee you a goal. Finally, I have my doubts about Beckham's fitness; even if he does play, I can't imagine he'll be anywhere near 100%. The abrasive play of Kyle Beckerman and Will Johnson will probably not help Becks out in that regard. They might get him angry, but they might also reduce him to a shadow of himself. When you're carrying multiple injuries to your torso (and possibly a concussion if that stumbling was any indicator), short rest is not what you need.
1-1 at full time with Saunders the busier of the two keepers, and RSL scores the winner in extra time.