MLS will have a new champion in 2013 and maybe it will be Real Salt Lake. After all, they took down the old champions.
The LA Galaxy's quest for a three-peat came to an end on Thursday night at Rio Tinto Stadium, where RSL turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 aggregate win with a 2-0 victory over the two-time defending champions. Sebastian Velasquez got the home side off on the right foot with a first-half goal that leveled the tie, but it took extra time for RSL to book their spot in the Western Conference final. Chris Schuler got on the end of Javier Morales' 102nd minute free kick and with his finish, the big, bad Galaxy were dead.
Before each game in the MLS Cup Playoffs, we ask five questions. Here's how the game answered them.
1. Will Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan find it again?
Unlike the first leg, when both Keane and Donovan had a slew of chances they failed to take advantage of, the Galaxy's stars were almost invisible on Thursday night. With RSL dominating the midfield, Keane and Donovan were starved of service for much of the match and when they did get the ball at their feet, Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler were there to turn them away. With no help from their wingers and an excellent pair of centerbacks getting help from their midfield, Keane and Donovan had no chance.
2. Can RSL slow the LA counterattack?
Salt Lake used two defensive midfielders in the first leg to try to contain the Galaxy counterattack and it worked, but they needed to get more in the attack in the second leg so they reverted to their regular diamond midfield. Theoretically, that should have left them susceptible to the counter, but it didn't. Kyle Beckerman was exceptional, especially in the first half and he cut out a handful of would-be counters early on. But it was really his work with Morales that silenced the Galaxy counter as the two took complete control of the midfield and forced LA to chase the ball for so much of the match that the visitors were never in position to strike when they did get the ball back.
3. Will the Galaxy defense hold up away?
The Galaxy gave up 30 goals away in the regular season compared to just eight at home and those problems crept up again on Thursday. Kofi Opare whiffed on a simple header to allow Schuler to score the winning goal, Velasquez was allowed to slip in between Opare and Todd Dunivant on Salt Lake's first goal and RSL had players running free on set pieces all night. Opare is inexperienced so his struggles away make sense, but the rest of the LA backline is the same group that won them consecutive MLS Cups. Why they struggled on defense on the road this season makes no sense, but it is clear that they did and that didn't change in the postseason.
4. Can RSL get Alvaro Saborio chances?
After a quiet first leg, Saborio gave LA's defense fits all night on Thursday and only misfortune kept him from winning the match for RSL before Schuler did the job. First, the Costa Rican rattled the cross bar on a great header and then he hit the post on a wicked shot from 20 yards. Saborio may not have scored, but he proved just how good he is and had the Galaxy scrambling to find him all night. It was just a matter of getting him chances.
5. Will LA get anything from the flanks?
The Galaxy's wing play was a problem all season and it was never more obvious than in their final match of the season. Gyasi Zardes, who has had his bright moments this season, couldn't get anything going in Salt Lake, while Robbie Rogers' campaign ended with yet another dud. LA needed good wide play to stretch the RSL diamond midfield, but it never came as Zardes and Rogers struggled to get into the match and when they did, their crosses were dreadful. Bruce Arena tried having the two switch sides in the second half, but that didn't help at all and in the end, their failures are the biggest reason Keane and Donovan were fighting a two vs. five battle up front all night.
What we didn't expect
RSL would shut down Keane and Donovan: All season long, the Galaxy had flaws, but more often than not, Keane and Donovan bailed them out. They did it against good teams and with ineffective teammates at times, but on Thursday night, they couldn't find a way through the RSL defense. Borchers and Schuler were nearly flawless and Beckerman was there to help when necessary, while also making it difficult for LA to get them service. It's easy to say that Keane and Donovan were done in by their teammates, but the duo has scored plenty of goals without help before and RSL didn't just keep them off the scoreboard -- they completely took them out of the match.
The big takeaway
RSL did the rebuilding job that LA might do next: Real Salt Lake let Jamison Olave, Will Johnson and Fabian Espindola go in the offseason, choosing to rebuild against a selected core and some young players. They struggled at times this season, but eight months later, they have their new team clicking and into the Western Conference final. Now the Galaxy may have to consider a similar rebuild. The team regressed this season and they need upgrades at several positions. They have the core of Keane, Donovan and Omar Gonzalez, as well as an impressive crop of young players, but it may be time to move on from a couple of the stalwarts that helped them reign supreme in MLS, just like it was for RSL.
Man of the match
Javier Morales: The match was won in the midfield, which means it was won by Morales and Beckerman, but the Argentine stands out for his delivery on set pieces. He caused havoc for the Galaxy with pinpoint balls and almost won the match in regulation with a perfect free kick, only to see the goal ruled off for offside, as well as a corner kick that Saborio nodded off the bar. But Morales did it again in extra time, hitting a free kick to the back post that Schuler buried to knock out LA.
After a one-year absence from the Western Conference final, Real Salt Lake are back within one round of the MLS Cup. Now the top-seeded Portland Timbers await them, but that may not be much of a concern for Salt Lake. The two teams met four times this season and RSL came away with two wins at home and two draws in Portland. If that form continues in the postseason, Salt Lake can start making plans for MLS Cup, while LA is left to start making plans for 2014.