Real Salt Lake vs. LA Galaxy: Keys That Will Shape MLS Conference Semifinal
The highest-profile series of the four conference semifinals in the MLS Cup playoffs comes to us from the No. 2 vs. No. 3 series in the Western Conference.
Real Salt Lake and the LA Galaxy field a lineup full of stars in almost every match, and Saturday's first leg at Rio Tinto Stadium will be no different.
The obvious spotlight will shine on Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando, but each of the 22 starters are deserving of high praise when at their respective bests.
Here is a look at the six key issues that will shape Saturday's star-studded match in Utah.
Forget everyone else who will play Saturday for a minute so we can focus on the legend himself Landon Donovan.
Donovan went on a whirlwind farewell tour to close out the regular season, but despite his strong 2014 campaign, he was not able to earn the Supporters' Shield.
For the Galaxy to make a deep run in the postseason, Donovan will need to be at his absolute best, especially if Robbie Keane and Gyasi Zardes are not firing on all cylinders.
Keane sat out the clash with Seattle last week because of nagging injuries, per Soccer By Ives' Ives Galarcep, while Zardes has seen a drop in form recently.
Donovan is the key to the Galaxy's success in the postseason, and if he fails to deliver another magical moment in the playoffs, Bruce Arena's side could be going home early.
The Return of Chris Schuler
Donovan's task of cracking the defensive code of Real Salt Lake will be made a bit more difficult with Chris Schuler back in the fold for the Claret and Cobalt.
The 27-year-old is the usual partner of Nat Borchers at center back, but he has been absent in the last three games due to a broken nose and three separate fractures to the bone around his eye.
With mask in hand, Schuler is expected to partner Borchers in the playoffs, per MLSSoccer.com, which will strike a bit of fear into the Galaxy attack.
The one concern about Schuler's play is that he has not seen game action with the mask. That obstacle could hinder his play in the early stages of the match as he gets used to wearing it.
Some players with his type of injury may be hesitant in the air as well, but given the way Schuler has played throughout his career, that should not be a major issue for him.
As long as he settles into the game fine, he should provide LA with a stiff test alongside Borchers in front of 'keeper Nick Rimando.
The No. 18s
Speaking of Rimando, he will be involved in the best goalkeeping matchup of the semifinal round with LA's Jaime Penedo.
As we all know, the Wall of the Wasatch is good for a few spectacular saves throughout a 90-minute span, and he is a terrific penalty stopper as well. The 35-year-old denied four of the five penalties he faced in the regular season.
It is going to take a Herculean effort to beat Rimando, but the same can be said about Penedo on his best day.
The 33-year-old Panamanian has been a massive upgrade for the Galaxy in net since his arrival after the Gold Cup last summer.
In 29 games this season, Penedo allowed just 33 goals and recorded eight shutouts. The one area in which Penedo could slip up in is penalties, as he was beaten by all three spot kicks he faced in the regular season,
Which Gyasi Zardes Will Show Up?
The recent struggles of Zardes have been shadowed by Donovan's regular-season retirement parade, but now that the show is over and the teams are in business mode, he must regain his scoring touch.
The 23-year-old American was widely criticized during the 2013 season for not showing the killer instinct in front of goal.
In his second season with the Galaxy, Zardes has shown improvement by scoring 16 goals, but he has only scored once since September 14.
Whatever the excuse has been over the last few weeks, whether it be fatigue or a lapse in confidence following a terrific summer, Zardes needs to snap out of his poor form.
With Zardes not raising a high threat up top, opposing defenses can focus on shutting down Keane and Donovan without worrying about the young forward.
But if he can connect on a few passes from the dynamic duo early in the match, he could once again become the third major threat in the Galaxy front line.
Which Real Salt Lake Forward Will Electrify Rio Tinto Stadium?
Real Salt Lake boss Jeff Cassar has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the forward position.
Alvaro Saborio and Joao Plata are his two main options up front, but he will also have Sebastian Jaime, Olmes Garcia and Robbie Findley at his disposal.
While his options off the bench are not as great as his starters, Cassar does have the depth if he needs to utilize it.
If one of those reserve forwards enters the match in the second half, the RSL manager will not have to worry about service, as his side contains one of the best providers in the league in Javier Morales.
Morales is a game-changing playmaker who sits behind the two forwards in an attacking midfield position. During the regular season, Morales contributed nine goals and 12 assists to the RSL attack.
With Morales behind Saborio and Plata, it's not a matter of if one of the forwards will score, it's when they will find the back of the net.
Add in an electric home crowd behind them and RSL might just squeak out a win before they visit StubHub Center October 9.
The Battle in the Middle of the Park
Talking about flashy attackers is nice and all, but the real stars of Saturday's match will be the gritty central midfielders for both sides.
The marquee name in this positional clash is Kyle Beckerman, who unlike Matt Besler and Graham Zusi has seen his form improve since returning from the World Cup.
Beckerman gets forward on occasion, but his main job is to do the dirty work in the tackling department. In this semifinal, he will face the duo of Marcelo Sarvas and Juninho, who are one of the best midfield pairings in the league.
Juninho brings more grit to the table, while Sarvas is an underrated provider to the attack with 11 assists this season.
Beckerman will be the main man charged with stopping the two Galaxy midfielders, but he will have help from Ned Grabavoy and Luke Mulholland, who have both been great for RSL this season.
Both Grabavoy and Mulholland have the potential to explode forward in attack as well, but their best skill Saturday will be keeping possession.
If the RSL trio can keep Juninho and Sarvas off the ball for long stretches of time, the hosts will dictate the pace of the match.
Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.
All statistics obtained from MLSSoccer.com.