BY KAYLA KNAPP
On Sunday night, the Seattle Sounders will go somewhere the club has never been before: the Western Conference Finals.
After taking down a tough Real Salt Lake side, the Sounders must now face the reigning MLS Cup Champions. But the Los Angeles Galaxy are also fresh off a difficult series with the Supporters’ Shield winners San Jose Earthquakes. There will be plenty of tired legs coming into this match.
The Galaxy have the advantages of an extra day of rest and starting the series at home, but the Sounders will without a doubt be ready for the match – don’t expect them to do anything but come out strong.
The biggest challenge facing the Galaxy in this series is breaking down the stingiest defense in the West (and second overall in the league). The Sounders backline and goalkeeper Michael Gspurning have only conceded 33 goals this season. Add in that the Galaxy have scored once in three meetings this season, and the offensive trio of Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle have their work cut out for them.
The Sounders defense could have trouble at left back now after MLS suspended fullback Marc Burch for the remainder of the playoffs for using a homophobic slur during Seattle’s second-leg win against Real Salt Lake on Thursday. With Leonardo Gonzalez hurt, Seattle will likely turn to Zach Scott at left back.
On the other end of the pitch, the Galaxy defense will have to figure out how to contain the Seattle attack featuring Eddie Johnson and Fredy Montero. Omar Gonzalez and Tommy Meyer (in place of the still recovering A.J. DeLaGarza) will need to play how they did at Buck Shaw Stadium on Wednesday. The center back pairing dealt perfectly with Steven Lenhart and Chris Wondolowski, who came at them aerially and on the ground. The defense will face something similar in the dynamic attack that Johnson and Montero will bring at them. With 27 goals scored between the two of them, and Johnson flying through the air and Montero slicing up defenses with his incisive runs, nothing short of another stellar defensive performance will do.
However, Seattle’s attack will likely be missing playmaker Mauro Rosales, who is still recovering from a hamstring strain, but should be back for the second leg. The influential midfielder has 13 assists this season, and would be a huge boost for the Sounders on the return leg. Getting out of the first leg at the Home Depot Center with any positive result would be huge for Seattle.
Here is a breakdown of the Western Conference championship series:
SEATTLE SOUNDERS vs. LOS ANGELES GALAXY
First leg at Home Depot Center: Sunday at 9pm ESPN
Second leg at Centurylink Field: Sunday, Nov. 18, 9pm ESPN
SEASON SERIES: Overall, the Sounders outscored the Galaxy 6-1 in their three meetings this year. Seattle took the first two at home, winning 2-0 in May and then 4-0 in August. But just a couple of weeks ago, Los Angeles won the regular season finale 1-0 win on their home pitch. Sounders won the season series, 2-1-0.
KEY PLAYERS – SOUNDERS: F Eddie Johnson, F Fredy Montero, M Mauro Rosales, M Brad Evans, GK Michael Gspurning GALAXY: F Robbie Keane, M Landon Donovan, M Juninho, D Omar Gonzalez, GK Josh Saunders
MATCH-UP TO WATCH: It’s clear that both teams have powerful attacks, but the difference-makers in this series will likely come in the midfield. The Galaxy’s Juninho and Sounders’ Osvaldo Alonso will go toe-to-toe in the middle of the pitch. Whichever player can get the upper hand in possession and distribution will be the one to lead his team to success. Keep an eye on Alonso though, as he is on yellow card watch – if he gets one in the first leg, he’ll miss the second.
OUTLOOK: Seattle head into this series after their fierce battle with Real Salt Lake to get here. The slightly battered squad will need to shake off their tired legs in Carson on Sunday night and just go all out. They have a week to recover between matches – getting a result in this first leg would clearly give the Sounders the upper hand heading back home.
The Galaxy must take advantage of the opportunity in front of them. They are more rested, and will be playing at home in front of an expected sellout crowd at the Home Depot Center. Everyone knows that Centurylink is a tough environment to come into a get a win, so heading into the second leg with a win from the first would take a bit of the weight off their shoulders. Though, we all saw what happened on Wednesday at Buck Shaw, so even if the Galaxy lost this first leg, don’t expect any less than an all-out war zone on the 18th.
PREDICTION: The Sounders are a team full of talent, with a lot of great players on their squad, but in this series, the odds are stacked firmly against them. Add in all of the above to their lack of experience at this stage of the playoffs, and the Galaxy will take this series. The first leg, a 3-1 Los Angeles win, the second leg a 0-0 draw in Seattle.