SANDY, Utah – Goals are the objective in soccer, of course, but in two-legged playoff series, scoring the first goal takes on an added strategic importance.
The first goal scored in Sunday's Real Salt Lake-LA Galaxy return leg in the 2014 MLS Cup Playoffs, presented by AT&T (5:30 pm ET, ESPN2, WatchESPN, ESPN Deportes, TSN2, RDS2) will be huge – in no small part because it will be the first goal scored in the two-leg Western Conference semifinal.
“We've preached from the very beginning that the first goal in this series is going to be very important and might be the decider,” RSL midfielder Ned Grabavoy told reporters. “Just because of how tight things are going to be.”
The two teams have an identical goals record against each other in four games this season — a 1-0 RSL win on the Galaxy's home field; a 1-1 tie in Utah; and a 1-0 LA win at home in the regular season; followed by last week's 0-0 tie on RSL's home field in the first leg of this playoff series.
Should Real score the first goal in Sunday's match, it would put extra pressure on the Galaxy because of the change in the playoff format this season that puts extra weight on away goals in two-legged series. One goal by RSL would mean the Galaxy would have to score two to advance to the Conference Championship. A scoreless tie would send the game to overtime and, potentially, a penalty shootout. Any other tie – 1-1, 2-2, 3-3, etc. – would send RSL through because of the away-goals rule.
So just how big would it be to score the first goal?
“It would be fantastic,” RSL Coach Jeff Cassar said. “Obviously, a goal early would really put the pressure on them to open up, and then you can always sneak one more. And that's always a good thing.
“There's going to be a lot of chess play when it gets toward the end of this game, whether we're up one, whether we're losing by one. There's going to be definite moves to be made within this game and we'll see how it unfolds.”
Real Salt Lake are riding a four-game shutout streak – it's been 403 minutes of game time since they gave up a goal. But shutting out the Galaxy again won't be enough to advance, at least not in regulation.
“We feel like we're in a pretty decent spot,” defender Chris Wingert told reporters. “ But we know we've got to go and get the job done. We know that it's going to be a tough task.”
“I do feel like the first 15-20 minutes for the road team are very, very important for how the rest of the game plays out,” Grabavoy said. “But we go there feeling confident on both sides of the ball. I feel like we'll leave it out there on the field whatever happens.”