Once Real Salt Lake put a bow on its second-most successful regular season in franchise history and guaranteed a top-two seed in the West, head coach Jason Kreis was asked which of any four teams he’d prefer to face in the Western Conference semifinals.
“To be champions,” Kreis said, “you’ve got to beat the best, so bring it on.”
The best has been brought.
Following their 1-1 draw Sunday night in Seattle, the two-time defending MLS Cup champion L.A. Galaxy settled the parity-ridden postseason picture earning the No. 3 seed and ensuring a semifinal date with rival Real Salt Lake.
The first leg of the series will kick on Sunday, Nov. 3, at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., at 7 p.m. MDT. The match will be broadcast live on ESPN.
The return leg is slated for either Nov. 6 or 7 at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy.
For the third time in five seasons, RSL will tangle with the Galaxy and its star-studded cast including Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and Omar Gonzalez.
“It’s a team that can always hurt you,” said RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey. “You’ve got arguably two of the top five players in the league in Donovan and Keane.”
It was Keane whose magnificent late-match volley at CenturyLink Field gave the Galaxy their draw, inching them above the Sounders in the cluttered West and out of the knockout round.
It was also Keane who torched RSL - and most of his opponents in 2013 - with a hat trick in the Galaxy’s 4-2 win at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., on Aug. 17, the last time the two Western Conference powerhouses met, a match in which RSL conceded four goals in 30 second-half minutes.
“They can hit you on the counter better than anyone else and the last two people you want to see coming at you on a counter are Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane,” Lagerwey said.
Following RSL’s 2-1 regular-season finale win over Chivas USA on Wednesday, defender Chris Wingert acknowledged that any of the possible teams RSL could face present tall tasks.
But the Galaxy are different.
“L.A., in the past few years, has been our biggest rival and biggest challenge,” Wingert said.
And Lagerwey said in order to control and have a chance in a two-leg series against the star-laden Galaxy, RSL must focus on attacking and going up early.
“The key against L.A. is you’ve got to get a lead,” Lagerwey said. “They’re very, very good and if they get ahead, they’re very good with closing up the shop … more important than any other opponent, we have to get a lead.”
2013 MLS Cup playoffs
Western Conference semifinals:
No. 2 Real Salt Lake vs. No. 3 L.A. Galaxy
First round knockout match:
No. 4 Seattle Sounders vs. No. 5 Colorado Rapids
(Winner faces No. 1 seed Portland Timbers)
Eastern Conference semifinals:
No. 2 Sporting Kansas City vs. No. 3 New England Revolution
First round knockout match:
No. 4 Houston Dynamo vs. No. 5 Montreal Impact
(Winner faces No. 1 seed New York Red Bulls)