With Real Salt Lake at the brink of giving Rio Tinto its first playoff game only a few weeks after it opened, USSoccerPlayers' Andrew Dixon looks at the differences between RSL and the Los Angeles Galaxy. Both spent time at the top of the Western Conference, but in the last week of the regular season only one remains in playoff contention.
By Andrew Dixon
MIAMI, FL (Oct 23, 2008) USSoccerPlayers -- How many of you had the Real Salt Lake in position to make the playoffs on the last weekend of the season, but not the LA Galaxy? RSL has clawed their way to the brink of Major League Soccer’s safety school where whatever might have happened during the regular season is forgiven, while one of the premiere clubs in the League will miss the post season for the THIRD STRAIGHT SEASON.
I can’t be the only Grown Man baffled by this. With a draw or a win over Colorado on Saturday, Real Salt Lake will be playing into November while we already know what David Beckham’s off season plans are.
On June 26th, the Galaxy were sitting on top of the Western Conference with 21 points, winners of four out of their last six, and scoring three times in a draw against Columbus.
Ruud Gullit, who had been hired to work in the bright glare emanating from Beckham’s presence and Alexi Lalas, the club president who had brought them both there, seemingly had this team on the right track. Landon Donovan was demonstrating the form that will make him an MVP candidate, Beckham was playing well, and the team was getting a push from Edson Buddle.
For part of the summer, it seemed like the Home Depot Center was the place to be, with the Galaxy taking advantage of their first full season with #23 in residence.
Real Salt Lake, meanwhile, was coming off another disastrous season. Playing in a college football stadium until late in the season, they finished with the second worst record in '07, had lost their first manager amid a broader front office shakeup, and their leading scorer was a rookie they got in a trade from LA. Still, at the same period in June of ‘08, they had 19 points.
These two teams went in vastly different directions thereafter. LA imploded and didn’t win another game until September 20th, a winless streak of a dozen games. By then both Lalas & Gullit were gone, Bruce Arena was back in MLS, the playoffs were just an illusion, and Beckham was probably longing for anything but another road swing. Meanwhile, RSL dropped only four points in July and have taken eight points from their last four games. Saturday's showdown in Commerce City is the result.
How did THAT happen?
We all know that the knock against the '07 Galaxy was depth past Beckham, Donovan, and Cobi Jones. That team gave up 48 goals, second only to Toronto FC. The '08 version of the Galaxy lost Jones to retirement.
A new approach was clearly necessary. Gullit led the charge as manager, but how much could anyone expect from someone just entering the League? It might be an easy excuse, but MLS is different.
Gullit's tenure became more about the problems with Major League Soccer's model than fixing the Galaxy. Fair enough considering, but not exactly what the club needed with the League's marquee player and coach. But let’s be real, LA's personnel moves did him no favors either, and that’s why he and Lalas left at the same time.
After Tyrone Marshall’s departure last year, Chris Albright was traded for allocation money. Ante Jazic was back, but still fighting injuries. Abel Xavier lost two steps over the off season. They got Greg Vanney from DC, but he hadn’t had a consistent season with United in '07. It wasn't until July when they signed another defender in Eduardo Dominguez, the same month the club waived Xaiver.
Eddie Lewis and Alvaro Pires were brought in but have any of those moves helped the leak in the back? If nothing else, moving out Carlos Ruiz in favor of defenders shows they get a very simple point.
The LA Galaxy are the worst defensive team in Major League Soccer, giving up more than two goals a game. They only reason the aren't at the foot of the League is that they also lead in goals scored thanks to Buddle and Donovan.
LA spends on offense, and trying to find the money along with the players willing to take it to tweak the defense has become their biggest issue. With two designated players, go figure.
Meanwhile, what was RSL & GM Garth Lagerway doing?
They took the 265k that they got when Eddie Pope retired and the $175k from sending Alecko Eskandarian to Chivas USA for an allocation and signed 1) Kenny Deuchar now RSL’s resident target forward, and 2) Dema Kovalenko who I think has played on just about every MLS team in the history of the league.
They then doubled Javiar Morales' salary and have been rewarded by a season that should have included an All-Star appearance. They gave substantial raises to players like Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando, veteran Andy Williams and Robbie Findley. Later in the season, they added Clint Mathis (no introduction needed) and Robbie Russell, an experienced defender who's been in Norway for several years.
On top of that, RSL had someone at the helm that was familiar with the workings of MLS in Jason Kreis. The former MVP installed a true team ethic in a side that was used to losing, put no pressure on them to succeed, and had them on top of the Western Conference by the end of July. While he didn't have to deal with the same amount of international call-ups (only Williams is a regular international) he did lose Chris Seitz and Nathan Sturgis to the Olympics. In other words, the same excuses used by other MLS teams to explain away results were in place.
That RSL's run was timed to open their new Rio Tinto Stadium is an added bonus. One more result, and they get the playoff stage while the once-mighty Galaxy are left picking up the pieces of a once promising season and wondering if they've seen the last of David Beckham.
The Leaven of Self-Examination has begun in LA while Real Salt Lake is moving onward and upward at the Galaxy's expense. Not too many people saw that coming, least of all, this Grown Man.
Andrew Dixon is a soccer writer based in Miami and a weekly columnist for USSoccerPlayers. Contact him at: email@example.com