The LA Galaxy looked every bit the part of two-time defending MLS Cup champions in the first leg of their Western Conference semifinal against Real Salt Lake. They had the edge in almost every statistical category and probably should have a two or three goal lead heading into the second leg, but, thanks to some sloppy finishing, they only managed a 1-0 win that has Salt Lake feeling good heading into the second leg.
Sean Franklin scored the match's lone goal on a 30-yard bullet for his first goal in five months, a deserved goal got the Galaxy after 48 minutes of splendid play, but that was all they would get. Robbie Keane, in particular, was off his game and once Salt Lake started pushing for an equalizer in the last 30 minutes, the chances came fast and furious from the LA counterattack, but they didn't finish any of them and walked off the field visibly disappointed.
1. Can the LA defense hold up?
On Sunday night, the Galaxy defense certainly did and it wasn't too much of a surprise. LA has had a good home defense and all four men along the back put in a good shift, especially Franklin and Omar Gonzalez. The big question will be whether they can replicate their defensive performance on the road, where their back line has struggled.
2. Will Tony Beltran shine?
It was thought that the Real Salt Lake left back would have the chance to take advantage of the Galaxy's left side, but he was never able to do it. Beltran wasn't bad, forcing Gyasi Zardes to cut in with regularity, but he still got beat for pace a couple times. Most importantly, the Galaxy's ability to push both Zardes and Todd Dunivant forward kept Beltran pinned back and kept him from getting into the attack.
3. Which Marcelo Sarvas will LA get?
Sarvas wasn't popping up all over the field and making the killer pass in the final third like he is when he was at his best, but he was still good, albeit in a different role than usual. Juninho was given the freedom to push forward and cause havoc on Sunday night, leaving Sarvas to be the more defensive and disciplined central midfielder. He was up to the task, keeping the back line relatively unchallenged and transitioning the ball forward quickly.
4. Can the Galaxy beat Nick Rimando?
The Galaxy's sloppy finishing made it so Rimando didn't have to stand on his head. They fired their chances wide with regularity, letting Salt Lake off the hook and only beat him on Franklin's screamer, which no goalkeeper could stop. Still, credit to Rimando, who twice came off his line quickly twice to snuff out through balls and was exceptionally good on set pieces.
5. Where will LA's wide play come from?
Zardes was LA's only real wide threat, with Robbie Rogers putting in a forgettable performance on the other wise. Even Zardes had trouble, though, failing to find teammates with his crosses despite having time to pick his head up on several occasions. The rookie was still dangerous, which is more than could be said of Rogers. The Galaxy are going to need to do better on the right in the second leg than the slow and predicable play of Rogers, who insisted on getting towards the endline and hitting a poor cross instead of hitting early balls or playing a teammate in when he made a run inside.
What we didn't expect
The worst match of the Robbie Keane's season: If Keane wasn't the league's MVP this season, he was the runner up, but he sure didn't look the part on Saturday. He was wasteful in front, firing wide when all alone on Rimando and he ruined multiple chances with poor touches or slow play, while his passing wasn't any better. If Keane was at his best, he could have had a couple goals at least, giving LA a comfortable lead heading back to Salt Lake, but instead they go into the second leg with a slim one-goal lead and that's almost entirely due to the failures of their best player.
The big takeaway
The Galaxy defense shut down Alvaro Saborio and Javier Morales: The LA defense has had trouble this season, especially since the summer as Gonzalez's form his dipped, but they were back at their best on Sunday. Saborio was completely taken out of the match and counted a spinning shot from 20 yards as his best chance at goal, while the Morales led the match in giveaways and times dispossessed. Saborio and Morales are two of MLS's best players, but LA completely took them out of the match.
Man of the Match
Sean Franklin: It's easy to give Franklin Man of the Match honors for his goal alone -- and it was an absolutely brilliant goal -- but he did much more than that. He was excellent defensively, helping force the RSL attack to the center, while also making several great runs to the inside that caused the Salt Lake defense trouble. Franklin played one of his best matches ever and it comes on the heels of the best season of his career. Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler were also outstanding and could have been given this honor too because without their great play RSL probably loses by three or four goals, but Franklin was too good and had the game-winning goal to boot.
With no away goals rule, the Galaxy head to Salt Lake with a one-goal lead and nothing more. Considering their many chances in the first leg, that's probably not what they they think they deserve, but it takes better finishing than they had to do better. RSL probably isn't too thrilled with the result either, as their late substitutions made it clear that they wanted a goal out of the first leg. LA conceded 30 goals away from home this season so RSL have to think they have a good chance to nip a couple goals to book their spot in the Western Conference final, while the Galaxy hope to prove once again that they can turn things up in the playoffs en route to a third straight MLS Cup.