The final scoreline may have read 0-0, but the first leg of the MLS quarterfinal between the Los Angeles Galaxy and Real Salt Lake was played at a frenetic pace at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, on Saturday night.
RSL ended LA’s two-year reign over MLS last season in this round of the playoffs, and these are two of the highest-level teams MLS has to offer. But more often than not on Saturday they proved John Wooden’s old dictum: Never mistake activity for achievement. The two teams ended up settling for a 90-minute stalemate that sets up a tension-filled return leg next week in Southern California.
Here are my three thoughts on the game:
• 1. Jaime Penedo came up big. The Galaxy’s Panamanian goalkeeper made six saves, three of them huge, to keep Salt Lake off the scoreboard. There have been concerns about Penedo’s play lately — including the goal he gave away against Seattle last week — but he was a rock on Saturday, sprawling all over his area to win Man of the Match honors. It seems strange that the weak link in several of Bruce Arena’s recent teams has been a goalkeeper, in part because Arena was a goalie himself back in the day, but the acquisition of Penedo was supposed to change that. He’s been up and down, though. If Penedo can play this well for the entirety of the playoffs, LA has a good chance of raising another trophy.
• 2. The officiating was suspect. In four MLS playoff games so far, the level of the officiating has not been as high as the quality of the play. We saw that clearly in the opening game, when referee Mark Geiger handed the game to Dallas on a bogus handball penalty call against Vancouver. And we saw poor officiating hurt both teams equally in this game. Incorrect offside calls ruined clear goal-scoring chances for Salt Lake’s Joao Plata and then LA’s Gyasi Zardes. It’s hard enough to score a goal in this game, but when the officials make it even harder with bad offside calls you can’t help but be frustrated as a neutral. Time to lock it down, Professional Referee Organization.
• 3. LA has a slight edge in the return leg. Maybe it’s due to away goals now being used as a tiebreaker for the first time in the MLS playoffs, but there was some confusion after the game over which team has the edge after a 0-0 heading back to LA next week. Some seemed to think RSL has the edge because a scoring tie will send it through to the next round. But I’d say LA actually has the slight edge, considering that 1) the Galaxy will have home-field advantage next week, and 2) LA will also have home-field advantage if the game goes to extra-time.
All LA has to do is win on its home field — something RSL couldn’t do on Saturday — and the Galaxy are through. When I say LA has a slight edge, I mean slight. I went back and found all the examples in the Champions League era of UEFA (1992-2014) in which the first leg of a knockout-round home-and-home was a scoreless tie. (We’re talking Round of 16 games and onward.) In 17 of the 26 cases, the home team in the second leg advanced. Not a huge sample size, but at least that’s somewhere to start.