Loss to Real Salt Lake could affect Galaxy's playoff position

The Galaxy is going to the Major Soccer League playoffs, that much has been decided. But it will need the rest of the regular season to determine whether it goes as a second-, third- or fourth-place team, which is of no small consequence given the league's unforgiving playoff format.

That pre-postseason push got off to bad start Saturday, though, with Fabian Espindola scoring twice in a three-minute span midway through the first half to lift Real Salt Lake to a 2-1 victory over the Galaxy in front of a sellout crowd of 27,000 at the Home Depot Center.

The Galaxy's first defeat in two months dropped it five points behind second-place Salt Lake in the Western Conference with two games to play. And a Seattle victory over Portland on Sunday would push the Galaxy to fourth place, leaving it facing the possibility of a knockout game to reach the conference semifinals.

"There's two more games left and then the true test comes," defender Omar Gonzalez said. "We've just got to win out."

Of almost as much concern as the standings, though, may be that the Galaxy is beginning to show cracks at a place and time where it can least afford them -- on its back line three weeks before the postseason begins.

The Galaxy ran off a season-best seven-game unbeaten streak after reuniting the four defenders who led the team to a championship last season. Half of those players were unable to play Saturday, with A.J. DeLaGarza out because of a sprained left knee and Todd Dunivant sidelined because of a hip pointer.

DeLaGarza will sit out the rest of the regular season but Dunivant says he'll be back for the team's next game. That's a good thing because the Galaxy, which started rookies Tommy Meyer and Bryan Gaul on Saturday, clearly isn't the same without its first-team defense.

It didn't lose in the last six games David Beckham sat out or the last five starts Landon Donovan sat out. But it has a losing record in five games without Dunivant and was 8-10-3 in the 21 games Gonzalez sat out after off-season knee surgery.

On Saturday, the Galaxy decided its best defense was an aggressive offense, peppering the net with 20 shots, its third-highest total this season. Only one found its mark, with Robbie Keane sticking his left foot in front of a Juninho cross in the 17th minute and redirecting it into the net at the far side for his 15th goal and putting the Galaxy ahead, 1-0.

The advantage was short-lived, though, with Espindola beating the Galaxy defense twice, first with a deft left-foot shot in the 25th minute and then heading home a cross from Javier Morales.

"We fell asleep for a few minutes and Espindola made two good plays," said Donovan, who limped off the field in the 81st minute favoring his left knee. "It was frustrating."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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