Emmanuel Boateng, Alan Gordon are LA Galaxy's unlikely heroes
The LA Galaxy cruised past Real Salt Lake 3-1 in the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs, setting up a second-round matchup with the Colorado Rapids.
Emmanuel Boateng scored twice, and Alan Gordon added a goal and two assists to lead the Galaxy to victory. Real Salt Lake's Joao Plata momentarily leveled matters with a first-half penalty, but the Galaxy were soon back on top, and overall, they were too much for RSL on the night.
Here are three thoughts on LA's triumph:
1. Boateng, Gordon torment RSL
Yes, you read that correctly. It wasn't Steven Gerrard, Robbie Keane or any of LA's high-priced stars but Gordon and Boateng who led the Galaxy attack and keyed the victory, though Gio dos Santos and Landon Donovan did their bit.
Almost as incredible is the fact that Wednesday's match marked the first time Gordon had started a playoff game. The impulse is to think he achieved that feat in his years with San Jose. But much like his first tenure with the Galaxy, Gordon was a supersub on that Earthquakes team.
With Keane having just come back from a hip flexor injury, Gordon got the nod up top, and he proved instrumental. He opened the scoring in the 14th minute by side-footing home Dos Santos' near post flick-on into an empty net.
Gordon then turned provider on two occasions in the first half, though both assists were due to the heavy lifting of Boateng. In the 26th minute, Gordon's layoff sparked a mazy run from Boateng that saw him slot the ball past RSL keeper Nick Rimando. Eight minutes later, Boateng took an innocuous looking pass from Gordon -- and appeared to be offside in the process -- and raced past Demar Phillips to curl in his second around Rimando for a 3-1 lead.
The goals saw Boateng continue his personal hoodoo over RSL. Prior to this match, Boateng scored just two goals all season, but both came in games against RSL. The first was in a 5-2 win over RSL on April 23, and the second was in a 3-3 draw with Real on Sept. 7.
It's a good thing too because early on, Boateng was wearing some goat horns. In the 19th minute, he was adjudged to have fouled RSL midfielder Javier Morales in the box, even though it was Morales who initiated the contact. The penalty was dispatched by Plata, which momentarily tied the score at 1-1. But Boateng more than made amends with his brace.
The irony, of course, is that in an offseason when Galaxy manager Bruce Arena brought in stars such as Ashley Cole and Nigel de Jong as well as MLS veterans such as Mike Magee and Jeff Larentowicz, the acquisition of Boateng flew under the radar. Even so, Boateng has provided a needed bit of speed to the Galaxy lineup, and his arrival has proven to be the latest in a long line of astute decisions by Arena.
2. For RSL, recent form did matter
When the playoffs roll around, the same narratives often creep up. It's a new season, regular season form doesn't matter, you want to peak at the right time, etc. But for RSL, Wednesday's match was an instance when recent form proved an accurate predictor of playoff performance.
RSL looked like a team that had run out of gas -- and ideas -- in terms of its attack, and Wednesday proved no different. RSL had an advantage over LA in terms of shots taken (14 to eight), but the vast majority of those came with Real trying to play catch-up, and RSL was starved of the ball for long stretches. When the team needed luck -- like when Kyle Beckerman's second-half header cannoned off the bar -- there was precious little to be had.
Without question, manager Jeff Cassar could have made good use of a fully fit Yura Movsisyan, who has been hobbled by a heel injury for much of the second half of the season. Movsisyan entered the match in the 58th minute for a largely anonymous Juan Manuel Martinez but had little impact.
In many ways, it looks like RSL's season was a mixed bag. Granted, the team will be pleased to be back among the playoffs places after missing out in 2015, and for a while it hovered near the top of the Western Conference standings. But backing into the sixth and final playoff spot and then being eliminated at the first hurdle won't spark many memories of the time when RSL was widely regarded as part of the league's elite.
This is a team with plenty of work to do this offseason, in terms of adding complementary pieces, and there are questions as to how much longer its core of Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman and, in particular, Morales can keep going.
3. L.A. faces difficult test in Colorado
The Galaxy will face a Rapids side in the Western Conference semifinals that in many ways is their polar opposite. LA is about stars and attacking panache. Colorado is about being tough to play against and grinding out one-goal victories.
Colorado is getting healthy at the right time, and its attack is getting a boost with Jermaine Jones returning to the field after recovering from a knee injury. The Rapids attack was at its best earlier this season, when Jones was healthy, so it figures Colorado will bring some more attacking heft to the series than it showed for much of the back half of the season.
Alas, the Galaxy can't say the same. If there was one aspect that took the shine off the evening, it was the sight of Gordon hobbling off in the 52nd minute with a hip injury. The fact that Keane came in for him amounts to a nice option for Arena, and early reports indicate that Gordon's injury isn't serious.
But with the Galaxy set to take the field again Sunday, LA will need every player to be on hand to get past the Rapids.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.