SANDY — Ask Chris Wingert what’s separated the L.A. Galaxy from the rest of MLS the past three years, and the response rolls off the Real Salt Lake defender’s tongue quicker than a Charlie Davies flop in the box.
“They have big-time goalscorers, no doubt in my mind,” he said.
Wingert was quick to compliment L.A.’s organization and the presence of Omar Gonzalez at center back. But with the Galaxy it’s all about the goalscorers — Mike Magee, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane.
“Even when they’re not playing their best game they’re still able to win because they bury goals,” said Wingert, who hopes to make his 2013 starting debut this Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium when RSL hosts the Galaxy at 7 p.m.
L.A.’s quality in front of goal was on full display in the final month and a half of the 2012 season, and it seemed to come out of nowhere.
Following Real Salt Lake’s 2-1 win at Los Angeles last October, RSL sat in sole possession of second place in the Western Conference with the Galaxy clinging to its playoff life in fifth place. Incredibly, RSL didn’t score a goal the rest of the season, ending the year on a five-game goalless drought.
Los Angeles, meanwhile, regrouped quickly from the RSL loss and went on to win MLS Cup by scoring 18 goals over its final nine matches. Of those 18 goals, the Irishman Keane scored seven with Magee tallying four.
RSL’s collapse down the stretch forced the club to making sweeping changes in the offseason — with finding quality goalscorers at the top of the to-do list.
Despite the roster retooling and having scored just seven goals this season, Real Salt Lake’s players believe they’re still one best teams in MLS. Saturday’s visit by the defending champs represents a great opportunity to prove it.
“Just because we won one game at home and we got one tie on the road before doesn’t make us a good team. We think we are a good team, but now we’ve got to go prove it. We’ve got to get the results, string them together and make a statement here in the league,” said RSL defender Tony Beltran.
The Western Conference rivals have won three of the past four MLS Cups, with the Galaxy also winning the Supporters Shield two of the past three years. Whenever they’ve met on the field, the stakes have been high, and Saturday is no different — even though it’s still April.
“It’s some good, quality football, and I think fans are into it. It’s a little too early in terms of standings, but I still feel like we’re two of the better teams in the league, and I think we both know it will be a big challenge to play against each other,” said Wingert.
The teams are tied for second in the West heading into their clash at Rio Tinto Stadium, and Beltran said, “Who knows, the match might have an outcome toward the end of the year.”
Last season the visiting team won all three games, including L.A.’s 3-2 win at Rio Tinto Stadium.
From an injury standpoint, Real Salt Lake is as close to 100 percent as it's been all year.
Kyle Beckerman is expected back in the starting lineup after missing last week with a rib injury, and Chris Schuler is available for selection despite breaking a bone in his hand in last week’s win over Chivas. Wingert is the only question mark because of tightness in his quad. He said he’s fully recovered from the broken foot that’s kept him off the field all season.
Los Angeles attacking players Keane (ankle) and Donovan (leg) are also questionable heading into the match. If they don’t play, Magee has proved to be a handful by himself.
Beltran said the key will be avoiding giveaways in bad spots.
“With the Galaxy, you saw clearly last game, they’re a very good team on the counterattack. They’re a fast team, and they’re a team if you give them a chance they’re pretty clinical and they have guys who can finish,” said Beltran. “Even when we’re playing well, even when we have the ball for long stretches of time, if we give it away they’ve got the talent to make us pay real quickly.”