Entering the second leg of the Western Conference semifinal between Real Salt Lake and the Los Angeles Galaxy, many observed that the Galaxy would go as far as Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane could take them.
The two veterans answered the call, scoring four of the Galaxy's five goals in a 5-0 aggregate victory for Los Angeles at the StubHub Center on Sunday evening.
The postseason is the time most coaches ask their star players to shoulder a larger burden in order to propel the team forward. Fox Soccer's Kyle McCarthy noted that throughout the early stages of the MLS Cup playoffs, many of the biggest stars have accepted the added responsibility:
Donovan, who's retiring at the end of the season, was brilliant on the night, notching a hat-trick and hammering Real Salt Lake on the counter-attack. His performance led many, including soccer writer Richard Whittall, to question if Donovan is making the right decision to step away from the game:
ESPN's Bob Ley countered that the 32-year-old could be leaving at the perfect time, before his skills diminish to a larger extent:
Sunday's match is merely another entry in a legendary MLS career.
The Galaxy also get a measure of revenge, having lost to Real Salt Lake in the conference semis last season. That early exit was a major disappointment after the Galaxy brought home back-to-back MLS Cups in 2011 and 2012.
Before the match, Keane commented that despite the matchup being the same, the circumstances were much different than last year's meeting.
"We're certainly in better position than last year in terms of the players that we have this year," he said, per Adam Serrano of LAGalaxy.com. "We have more experienced players and the players that we had last year are a year old and a year better. In terms of that, we're good with the experience that we have."
After a tense first leg in Sandy, Utah, the Galaxy felt much more comfortable on their home pitch, and that was evident in the opening minutes of the match.
Donovan wasted little time breaking the deadlock, scoring on a header in the 10th minute after a perfectly placed cross from A.J. DeLaGarza. The Salt Lake defense was spread thin by the width of the Galaxy attack, leaving Donovan unmarked and all alone in the box.
Matthew Tomaszewicz of MLS' March to the Match podcast commended L.A. for the way in which it used the full width of the pitch to maximum effect:
The goal also snapped Real Salt Lake's 400-plus-minute clean sheet streak:
Keane doubled the Galaxy lead just 10 minutes later. Donovan slid a nice pass across goal that the L.A. striker poked home from close range.
The Galaxy took their 2-0 advantage into the second half. Many expected Real Salt Lake to be much improved in the second 45. The club has plenty of playoff experience, and the halftime break gave manager Jeff Cassar time to regroup his players and change his plan of attack.
Whatever changes Cassar made were undone in the 54th minute. This time it was Keane setting up Donovan with a perfectly weighted through ball that sent Donovan one-on-one with RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando. Donovan rounded Rimando and finished with a left-footed shot into the open goal.
Even down 2-0, Real Salt Lake were still in the match. They have more than enough talent to make up that kind of gap over a half of soccer. However, with the Galaxy's third goal, the outcome was all but decided.
Marcelo Sarvas made it 4-0 in the 63rd minute, and then Donovan finished off his hat-trick in the 72nd minute before getting subbed off in the 83rd. As you'd expect, the all-time leading goalscorer in MLS history received a massive ovation as he left the pitch, per Serrano:
For Cassar, who's in his first year as Real Salt Lake manager, Sunday will be a humbling experience, but MLSSoccer.com's Matthew Doyle thinks he'll come out stronger as a result:
The system is certainly in place for RSL to make a quick rebound next season, but the sting from this loss will linger for some time.
The Galaxy will play the winner of the other Western Conference semifinal between FC Dallas and the Seattle Sounders. The two clubs meet on Monday night at CenturyLink Field in Seattle having drawn 1-1 in Frisco, Texas.
While the Sounders are the top seed in the Western Conference and won the 2014 Supporters' Shield, the Galaxy may have become the team to beat on the back of Sunday's win.