After 94 minutes of pulsating soccer between heavyweights LA Galaxy and RSL, one thing is abundantly clear: There will be no mail-it-in games at the top of the Western Conference to end the regular season.
Coming into the night, RSL held a tenuous grasp on second place (52 points) ahead of third-place LA (50), with just three games left in the regular season. Lurking in the shadows was Seattle, trailing the Galaxy by a single point in fourth place, but holding the trump card of two games in hand, like Seabiscuit’s jockey on the final turn.
Los Angeles emerged from the contest beaten and limping (especially captain Landon Donovan, who was forced out late with a knee injury), while Salt Lake opened up a five-point gap with this 2-1 victory in their rivals’ home stadium. Robbie Keane’s exquisite volley to open the scoring in the 17th minute was outdone by two strikes in just three minutes from Fabian Espindola to stun the host.
The race for a top-three finish in the West has assumed added urgency after changes MLS incorporated to the playoff format before this season. The top three teams qualify automatically for the conference semifinals, which are played out over two legs. But the team that finishes fourth now has to win a single-elimination playoff against the fifth-place team just to make it to the semis.
The change has upped the ante in the runup to the playoffs, with Seattle, RSL and Los Angeles all playing each other in their final two games.
“Big win,” RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando said after the game. Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis admitted he had spoken to his players about the importance of finishing third or better in order to avoid adding an extra game to a congested fixture list that would make it “almost impossible” to win the MLS Cup.
“We’ve put a ton of stress and strain on our players about not ending up in one of those fourth or fifth [spots],” Kreis said. “Just the extra game, you add another 90 minutes in a midweek match and try to get it all the way to the finals is a very difficult prospect.”
Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, visibly frustrated following the loss, by contrast said his team had not thought about the standings.
“Yeah. Whatever,” Arena responded when asked about the playoffs. “I haven’t looked at the standings exactly, I don’t really care. The next game we go out and we play to win.”
Donovan, whose status for the stretch run may be in doubt after a left knee injury forced him from the game in the 81st minute, said the loss makes the task harder.
“There’s no question [2nd or 3rd place is the] goal, but that goal just got a lot more difficult,” said Donovan. “We’re probably going to have to win both [remaining] games and then see what happens.”
The Galaxy now await the outcome of Seattle’s game Sunday against Vancouver, before taking on league-leading San Jose and then Seattle itself in the final two games. Seattle also plays RSL, meaning more fluctuations could be in store.
Rimando said the team would be happy to avoid the unpredictability of a wild card matchup.
“Single-elimination, obviously the higher seed’s playing at home, you have a better chance at winning. But it’s always difficult when you come into situations because you never know what will happen,” Rimando said.
“If you’re fourth, obviously there’s a disadvantage to playing the extra game,” said Donovan. “But we’re a deep team, and if we have to do it we’ll do it.”
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