A stingy defense versus a star-studded attack. Blue-collar players versus world-renown names. Playoff veterans versus postseason neophytes. Big market versus small market.
The Colorado Rapids and LA Galaxy will get the Western Conference semifinals underway on Sunday when they meet at StubHub Center in Carson, Calif. for the opening leg of their series. The matchup pits the No. 2 seed Rapids against the No. 3 seed Galaxy, and the two games they will play are more than intriguing given how vastly different the two clubs are.
The Rapids enter the first match with a defensively-sound squad that surprised many observers this season by finishing as high as they did. The Galaxy, meanwhile, have an envious embarrassment of attacking riches that guided them through the MLS regular season and past Real Salt Lake in the first round of the playoffs.
That is not all that is dissimilar between them. Here’s a closer look at the Western Conference semifinals showdown between the Rapids and the Galaxy:
SEASON SERIES: The Galaxy were unable to beat the Rapids in three meetings this season, but the two clubs have not played each other since August. When they did, the games were tight. The Rapids won the first duel in Week 2, 1-0, and the other two matches were finished in 1-1 and 0-0 draws, respectively.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
COLORADO: Tim Howard will likely have to come up big in goal on at least a few occasions if the Rapids are to keep the Galaxy’s star-studded attack in check. Howard has plenty of big-game experience, but this is his first go-around in the playoffs.
LA: Robbie Keane has proven to be one of the more consistent and dangerous forwards when the postseason rolls around, but he is coming off an injury that has not allowed him to play much this month. How much rust Keane has to work off is still unknown and how he fares up top could determine whether the Galaxy advance or not.
MATCH-UP TO WATCH: Robbie Keane vs. Axel Sjoberg. The lethal goal-scorer goes up against the hulking centerback in a match-up that serves as a microcosm for this series. The key ingredient in the Rapids’ recipe for success this year has been their defensive stinginess, but Keane can find the slightest of cracks in even the tightest back lines. This should be a doozy.
COLORADO: Having recently returned from a lengthy injury spell, Jermaine Jones could leave a huge imprint on these two games if he quickly finds the form that allowed him to thrive at the beginning of the season. Jones can not only set the tone in the midfield with his work rate and hard-nosed style of play, but he is also more than capable of contributing to the attack with either goals or assists.
LA: His role might be different than what it was in the past, but Landon Donovan is slowly starting to look more and more like the star player that could punish defenses with either his skills or smarts. Donovan will not have to do the heavy lifting with Keane and Giovani dos Santos there, but their presences could free him up to be a difference-maker.
The Galaxy will have home field advantage to start, but will be playing with heavier legs after taking on and beating Real Salt Lake on Wednesday while the Rapids enjoyed a bye. The good news for the Galaxy is that star striker Robbie Keane is healthy and could be ready to start and lead the front line after contributing a 38-minute shift as a substitute.
Keane, forward partner Giovani dos Santos, and Landon Donovan all are viable threats that can change the outcome of a game or series in favor of the Galaxy, but they have the tough task of going up against a strong Rapids side that includes the intimidating Axel Sjoberg in central defense and the savvy and still athletically gifted Tim Howard in goal.
The Rapids will certainly need to limit the Galaxy attack, as they cannot stand to go punch-for-punch with the five-time MLS champions. Even so, Pablo Mastroeni will need his offensive-minded players to be effective in the attack. The burden will fall largely on the shoulders of playmaker Shkelzen Gashi, but he will have help from the likes of Dominique Badji and the returning Jermaine Jones.
The Galaxy’s defense, which is led by stout central defender Jelle Van Damme, will present a stiff test for the Rapids and so too will Bruce Arena. The legendary coach has a wealth of experience managing playoffs series, and he will surely have a few tricks up his sleeve against Mastroeni, who is about to get his first taste of postseason soccer as a coach.
Experience is an area where the Galaxy as a whole have an advantage as well. The Galaxy have made a number of postseason runs with a sizable part of their roster while this group of Rapids players have yet to play a playoff game together. That might tip the scales in favor of the Galaxy, but the Rapids have defied expectations throughout the entirety of 2016 and might just do it again in the postseason.