Very little has separated the Los Angeles Galaxy and Real Salt Lake.
Robbie Keane could be the deciding factor for the Galaxy.
Keane and the Galaxy begin their quest to become the first team to win three straight MLS Cup titles on Sunday night when they open this Western Conference semifinal series with visiting Salt Lake.
Los Angeles has won back-to-back MLS Cup championships, and concluded this regular season with a 15-11-8 record to finish third in the West, setting up a two-legged series with No. 2 seed Salt Lake (16-10-8).
While only a victory separated the teams in the standings, the teams have split 10 regular-season meetings since the 2009 MLS Cup final, which RSL won on penalties.
The Galaxy returned the favor in the 2011 West finals, winning 3-1 with Keane netting the final score.
The Irish forward has five goals in his last four meetings with Real, scoring a hat trick in a 4-2 home victory on Aug. 17. That was the beginning of a stretch of 10 games in which Keane scored nine times with two assists.
He capped the regular season with his 16th goal in a 1-all draw at Seattle last weekend, while his 11 assists are a personal best since joining Los Angeles in 2011.
“He has the whole package,” Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando told the team’s official website. “He’s one of the best players in this league for a reason. That’s one of the guys we’re definitely focusing on come Sunday.”
Salt Lake is also focusing on minimizing the threat of the Galaxy’s counterattack, which is led by Keane and Landon Donovan. Donovan had 10 goals and nine assists, and remains tied with Jeff Cunningham for the league’s all-time record of 134 regular-season goals.
“They love counterattacks,” midfielder Javier Morales said. “They have very smart people on top with Keane and Donovan. They’re very good players, so we have to be smart.”
Maintaining possession is RSL’s calling card, and continuing that is a priority in the hopes that it will limit Keane and Donovan on the counter.
“We play our best soccer,” Rimando said, “when we possess the ball and play good team defense.”
Cracking the Galaxy’s defense, though, will be another daunting task. Los Angeles has yielded just six goals while going 4-2-4 since beating Salt Lake on Aug. 17, and it’s posted three straight shutouts in its past three home games, going 2-0-1.
“We’ve had a good run since August. We’ve done a good job and we’ll hopefully be healthy by the weekend when we play,” coach Bruce Arena said.
RSL has the same concerns with Morales’ status unclear due to a nagging ankle injury, which forced him to miss one game. He returned as a second-half sub in a 2-1 defeat of Chivas USA in the regular-season finale Oct. 23.
The midfielder had eight goals and 10 assists this year, setting up three tallies in the last two meetings with Los Angeles.
Having him in the lineup could keep Alvaro Saborio rolling. The Costa Rican forward has eight goals over his last eight games, netting his 12th of the season against Chivas.
Despite being RSL’s top scoring threat, Saborio has just two goals in eight career meetings with the Galaxy, including the playoffs.
These teams will meet in the second leg of the series Thursday in Sandy, Utah.