The MLS postseason script has already been written. The L.A. Galaxy are supposed to send Landon Donovan into retirement with yet another MLS Cup title.
It's one that Real Salt Lake has no intention of following.
The two sides play the second leg of their Western Conference semifinal series this Sunday after last week's opening leg in Sandy, Utah, finished scoreless. With the upcoming match set for StubHub Center, L.A. would appear to be in good position to ride home-field advantage into the next round.
Yet RSL is probably the team L.A. would least like to see walking out of the tunnel this weekend. Since the start of the 2009 season, Real has been every bit L.A.'s equal, going 8-8-4 in regular-season and postseason play during that time. And had it not been for RSL, L.A. might have a true dynasty on its hands. Twice in the past five years, Real has thwarted L.A.'s championship hopes, including the 2009 MLS Cup final when it beat the Galaxy on penalties.
RSL also handed L.A. its lone home defeat this year, when it prevailed 1-0 on the opening weekend of the regular season. Not that there is any chance of RSL feeling overconfident. L.A. did manage to beat RSL at StubHub later in the season.
"We know with L.A. it's always tight," RSL midfielder Ned Grabavoy said. "Goals, usually, are pretty hard to come by for both teams. So you end up with these two-leg series that are a bit of a chess match."
L.A.'s dominant home record of 12-1-4 this season is the result of several factors. The Galaxy's airtight defense tied for the fewest goals allowed this season. L.A. has attacking players like Donovan, Robbie Keane and Gyasi Zardes, who are devastating, especially in transition. Its central midfield tandem of Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas is as underrated as it is effective on both sides of the ball.
The vast expanses of the StubHub Center turf play a factor, as well. Field dimensions across MLS can often be in the eyes of the beholder. Some venues, like San Jose's former home of Buck Shaw Stadium, seem to play smaller than they actually are given the fans' proximity to the playing surface. From the moment StubHub Center opened back in 2003, it seemed to play big -- way big.
"You hit a long ball and it ends up falling 10 yards short to the opposing center back," RSL defender Nat Borchers said. "You're like, 'How is that possible?' It doesn't happen like on any other field in the league."
Given the speed and incisiveness of L.A.'s attacking players, it makes for a unique home-field advantage. As opposing teams begin to tire and space opens up in the attacking half, L.A.'s attack reaches warp speed.
"I think it's the teams that don't possess the ball well that have trouble on that field," RSL manager Jeff Cassar said. "It's a lot more work without the ball than with the ball, and if you can continually turn over the ball cheaply and let their dangerous players have time and space, it can feel extremely big."
Yet if there is one thing RSL does well, it's take care of the ball. The 4-4-2, diamond midfield imprint left by former manager Jason Kreis remains in force under Cassar. Possession percentage may be an overused stat these days, but RSL's rate of 55.4 percent does highlight its affinity for the ball.
It is in these moments when the extra space at StubHub Center figures to play into Real's favor. Every second it has the ball is one that players like Keane and Donovan don't. It will also force L.A. to chase and may wear the home side down just enough to leave itself vulnerable to a moment of magic from the likes of Javier Morales or Joao Plata.
There will be those moments, of course, when RSL doesn't have the ball, and while it seems counterintuitive, it may actually be beneficial to not place an inordinate amount of attention on the likes of Keane, Donovan and Zardes. RSL will need to be aware of matters further upfield, as well.
"The ball comes to [Keane, Donovan and Zardes] from somewhere," Grabavoy said. "I think if you look at their two midfielders in Juninho and Sarvas, I think those players have developed into good, two-way players. They're both players that probably like to get on the ball more than anyone on their team, and try to dictate that tempo and pace of the game. So in the first leg, I thought our group did an unbelievable job to deny those two time and space on the ball to really get them going."
The away goals rule will have an impact, as well. While RSL was disappointed to finish up its home leg scoreless, the good news was that it didn't concede. Now there is perhaps more pressure on L.A. to not give up a goal than there is for the Galaxy to score.
RSL's biggest wild card might be Alvaro Saborio. The Costa Rica international has scored just twice since returning in early September from a broken foot that forced him to miss last summer's World Cup. But Cassar feels Saborio's partnership with Plata is poised for a breakout, and he provides the kind of physicality that can cause problems for any back line.
"I think Saborio is right there," Cassar said. "He's progressed every training session, getting fitter, more confident, sharper. I think he's in a really good place right now. I think him and Joao have a really good partnership. It's been our most successful forward combination over this whole year, even with him missing so much time."
As for Donovan, this is the first of several potential games that could send him into retirement. Cassar insists his side is looking at the bigger picture.
"We have not even spoken about [Donovan's retirement] one time," he said. "That is not our focus at all. We want to make this L.A.'s last game, not just Landon's last game."
And write a very different playoff script.