Thursday October 27th, 2016

In 2005, the LA Galaxy won an MLS Cup title after finishing the regular season eighth out of 12 teams. That was 11 years ago, and although Bruce Arena wasn’t yet in charge, Landon Donovan and Alan Gordon were on the squad. Seven years later the Galaxy finished eighth overall again. Gordon was in San Jose but Donovan—joined by David Beckham and Robbie Keane—helped power LA to another championship.

The Galaxy have won titles as favorites, but they’ve also proven that MLS is all about how you finish. And although this season hasn’t really had a championship feel, LA’s dominant 3-1 win over Real Salt Lake in Wednesday night’s Western Conference knockout-round match should come as no surprise. This is what the Galaxy do.

“This is what it is all about. You still get that excited feeling about trying to win a championship,” Gordon told reporters this week. “We’ve got no excuses and we’re ready to go. We have a lot of veterans on this field. We have a lot of champions on this team.”

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On Wednesday, key veterans included Gordon, who was starting a playoff game for the first time in his career, and Donovan, who was on the field at kickoff for just the third time since he decided retirement was just a phase. Other contributors were less heralded. Emmanuel Boateng tormented RSL during a dominant first half, scoring twice. And Sebastian Lletget, who had an uneven sophomore campaign, was outstanding as a box-to-box midfield conduit.

• WATCH MLS PLAYOFFS LIVE: Seattle vs. Sporting KC on Fox Sports

LA (13-6-16) will face the Colorado Rapids in the Western Conference semis. The second-seeded Rapids boast MLS’s best defense and an undefeated record at their mile-high home. But that was the regular season and Colorado, which lacks the same playoff pedigree as its opponent, will have its hands full with a Galaxy side that, again, seems to be finding answers when the games matter more.

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Boateng takes a star turn

He was signed in January “to add valuable depth,” Arena said. Boateng was a relative unknown, a former UC Santa Barbara player who spent one season in college before moving to Sweden. After two-plus seasons at Helsingborgs, during which he scored all of four goals, Boateng was acquired by the Galaxy. The move was announced the same day as the college draft, guaranteeing it was overlooked.

He wasn’t expected to play too much, not with Keane and Gio dos Santos, Steven Gerrard, Gyasi Zardes, Lletget, Mike Magee and Gordon at Arena’s disposal. But Boateng’s speed and creativity were intriguing, and teammates’ injuries and international commitments ensured he’d get minutes. The Ghana native wound up starting 17 games—half the regular season schedule—and tallying two goals and five assists.

But it was on Wednesday that he broke out. He started on the left wing in LA’s 4-2-3-1 and scored his first goal in the 26th minute, taking a layoff form Gordon and blowing through three RSL defenders before poking a shot under Nick Rimando. It was a spectacular, explosive individual effort.

His second goal came in the 34th. Gordon was the provider again. Boating tore past RSL left back Demar Phillips and beat Rimando to the far post.

Boateng had doubled his regular season goal total in just over half an hour (both those goals came against RSL as well). LA has been known for signing big stars, but its championships also have depended on supporting players like Boateng—players who lift their game in the playoffs. Boating faded in the second half, but there was nowhere to go but down after a scintillating first.

Arena gets it right following a strange season

Arena is in the last year of his contract, and there’s been speculation about his future. The recent additions of aging European veterans like Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole and Nigel de Jong were not the sort of moves made by a team planning to build for the long term. There was a “win now” tenor to this season, but it was apparent early on that games wouldn’t be won on paper. De Jong was a fearsome presence, as expected, but he wound up leaving for Galatasaray over the summer. Gerrard couldn’t stay healthy and wasn’t very impactful when he was, and Keane and Dos Santos never found optimal chemistry. In August, Zardes broke his foot.

“To be still standing, having our heads above water at this point proves that we’ve been able to cope with the different injuries and issues that we’ve had. So that’s a positive,” Arena said this week. “But it doesn’t matter now. We’re down to one game.”

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If Arena made a mistake or two building his team this year, he also did a decent job going about fixing them. Bringing Donovan out of retirement was a bit of brilliant, out-of-the box thinking, and the returning legend’s work on the flank against RSL (in only his third start) was tireless and influential. RSL’s wide attacking players, Joao Plata and Juan Manuel Martínez, offered little going forward and often were chased down—when they weren’t pinned back themselves.

On Wednesday, Arena got the tactics right. There wasn’t much bite in the LA midfield, but the mobile trio of Dos Santos, Lletget and Baggio Husidic overwhelmed RSL and gave playmaker Javier Morales almost no room to breathe. Up front, Gordon started in place of Keane (hip flexor) and was a constant problem for RSL’s makeshift back four. He scored the opening goal with an easy volley at the back post and set up Boateng on LA’s second and third. It was only the second time in Gordon’s 13-year career he tallied a goal in two assists in the same game.

This team may not be the one Arena envisioned at season’s start, but as Keane gets healthy, Donovan gets fit and Boating gains in confidence, it’s one that may wind up taking the veteran coach where he wants to go.

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RSL faces a reckoning

Jeff Cassar also is in the last year of his contract, but the RSL coach doesn’t have tenure like Arena. He was club owner Dell Loy Hansen’s preferred replacement for Jason Kreis, but he’s yet to win a playoff game in his three seasons in charge. RSL was dismantled by LA in the 2014 conference semis, missed out altogether last year and then limped into this postseason on a 0-4-3 skid. This was the opposite of a team in form, and it was unable to put up a fight before Wednesday’s game was out of reach. Salt Lake’s only goal against the Galaxy came on a very questionable first-half penalty kick drawn by Morales.

The Argentine playmaker will turn 37 in January. Kyle Beckerman, who played in his record 439th MLS game, will be 35 next spring. The back four, which was absent fullback Tony Beltran (back) on Wednesday, is in tatters. And Martínez’s flameout in the second half of the season—he’s had only one goal and one assist since the beginning of August—doesn’t bode well for his future. He was yanked by Cassar in the 58th minute and wasn’t happy about it.

RSL (12-13-10) had injuries, notably to striker Yura Movsisyan, but so did the Galaxy. There are quality pieces for sure, but the heart and soul of the team—Beckerman, Morales and Cassar—may be past its championship window. It’ll be a winter of tough questions along the Wasatch Front.

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