CARSON, Calif -- The emerging rivalry between the Los Angeles Galaxy and Real Salt Lake is set for a new chapter when the two teams square off in the Western Conference final on Sunday evening. With both teams stacked with (healthy) midfield talent, the encounter promises live up to its billing as a meeting between two of MLS' most talented teams this season.
Despite missing influential playmaker Javier Morales for most of the season after he suffered a fractured ankle in May, Salt Lake managed to post the third-best record in MLS and - with Morales back - scrape past Seattle Sounders FC in the team’s first playoff series. Now Morales and his counterpart Kyle Beckerman, one of the league’s most dynamic pairings, come up against arguably the only team that can boast as talented a midfield core.
With David Beckham looking set to play following a back injury sustained in the Galaxy’s 2-1 win over the New York Red Bulls on Thursday night and Juninho returning from suspension, Bruce Arena can field his strongest central midfield pairing, which sets up an intriguing matchup in the center of the park come Sunday evening.
In spite of the threats posed by Beckham, who was second in the league with 15 assists, and Juninho, who has tallied four goals, Beckerman insisted that Real would have to focus on its own game in order to counter those threats.
"I think if we get in our rhythm and we get what we do well down, then we take advantage of their good players – their good players then have to play defense," Beckerman explained.
The U.S. international offered some specifics as to what Salt Lake would do to establish that rhythm.
"I think a lot of it is winning second balls, getting stuck in and winning your tackles, and then the transition from offense to defense," Beckerman said. "It'll be a full team effort to win the midfield and I think that'll be the same for them."
Beckerman himself missed the final three games of the season following a headbutt and red card in the team's clash with the Chicago Fire, but has made his presence felt in Real Salt Lake's playoff run so far.
"We had the opportunity to play them a month ago, a month and a half ago without Kyle and there’s certainly a difference when he’s not on the field," Galaxy captain Landon Donovan said. "Not only is he vocal, but positionally he's very good, emotionally he's their leader, and he makes their team a lot better, no question."
On the other side of the field, the Galaxy will have their own pair of fresh legs, as Juninho will return with one week's rest after serving a suspension for his role in the fracas that followed the team’s 1-0 win in New York in the first leg of the series.
When asked about what having Juninho back would mean to the team, Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena simply stated, "He's a good player - what more can you say? Whenever you add a good player on the field it helps your team."
Beckham elaborated more when asked about what his returning midfield partner would bring to the game, saying, "I think the consistency that he showed all season, I think he’s been exceptional this year."
Beckham also praised the 22-year-old Brazilian’s development over the year, the Brazilian’s second MLS season since joining the Galaxy on loan from Brazil’s Sao Paulo FC.
"He's grown up as a player and as a person and I’ve always said about Brazilian players: They know how to play the game and know how to play it well," Beckham added.
Beckham also took time to discuss the battle he would be facing in midfield, not just against Beckerman, but Morales as well, whom Beckham commended for his comeback from an injury that kept him out for most of the season.
"[I have] a lot of respect for Morales coming back from the injury that he had," Beckham said. "I was happy for him, because when you're a player and you get a bad injury like that, you have your doubts about coming back. I was happy to see him back and happy to see him playing the soccer that he can play."
Morales had tallied two goals and two assists in five games before his injury, and put up impressive numbers against Los Angeles this season, with two goals and an assist coming in a 4-1 demolition of the Galaxy on March 26. He tallied another assist in his first game back from injury, a 2-1 loss at the Home Depot Center on Oct. 1.
On Beckerman, Beckham commented, "Kyle’s a good lad and obviously I played with him in the All-Star game and played against him a few times. He's a very good player, a good professional and all-round a good player."
While both sets of players were full of respect for their opponents a day prior to the game, come Sunday evening they will be fully focused on their own games. Given the quality they will put onto the field, it will be a tantalizing prospect for those viewing.