BY ADAM SERRANO
The Seattle Sounders entered the playoffs as the hottest team in MLS, but with a dominating performance on Sunday, the Los Angeles Galaxy proved that it was still the team to beat.
The Galaxy advanced to the Western Conference Final for a second year in a row after a 2-1 victory over the Sounders on Sunday night at the Home Depot Center. Edson Buddle and Omar Gonzalez scored to give the Galaxy a 3-1 aggregate in its series with the Sounders. Seattle pulled one back late in the second half off a goal by Steve Zakuani. The Galaxy will now host FC Dallas on November 14th for a berth in the MLS Cup Final.
"We played very well in the first half, but in the second half, we were a little sloppy and if we were a little smarter and sharper then we could have gotten the third goal," said Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena. "In a game of this magnitude and at this time of the year, I'm certainly pleased with [the game]. "
The Galaxy put in a great deal of pressure on a Sounders team that appeared tentative out of the gate. Los Angeles opened the scoring the 19th minute after Buddle headed in a corner kick ball by David Beckham. It was Beckham again, who provided the service on the second goal, on a free kick in the 27th minute. This time it was Gonzalez on the receiving end who was a step faster than the Sounders defense and headed the cross into the back of Kasey Keller's net.
Los Angeles got a bit of a scare late in the second half when Sounders midfielder Alvaro Fernandez caught Donovan Ricketts in the midsection. Ricketts was down for around three minutes, but the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year was able to stay in the match. The Galaxy defense was strong throughout and successful in closing off space and preventing Seattle from utilizing their wide players.
"Zakuani and Nyassi were playing well and we knew that if we took that away from their game that we would beat them," said Landon Donovan. "We heard for a week before we played them up there about how happy that they were to play us in this series and my guess is that they probably have different feelings now."
Seattle struggled throughout the match to find any rhythm on offense as Fredy Montero and Blaise N'Kufo were unable to find service for long stretches of the match. In addition to Montero and N'Kufo, the Sounders flanks were increasingly out hustled by a cagey Los Angeles defense. Seattle did not control a considerable amount of possession until Alvaro Fernandez came into the match for Nyassi at the start of the second half.
With Fernandez in the match, the Sounders were able to control more of the second half possession. The Sounders broke through in the 86th minute when Zakuani scored the Sounders first playoff goal. Zakuani broke free of the Galaxy defense and fired a shot that beat a slow-reacting Ricketts. The Sounders have now been eliminated in consecutive years in the first round of the playoffs and remain winless in post season play. For Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid, it is clear that his team is still a work in progress.
"We have to become better and become hardened, we need to play with a discipline and a craftiness that [the Galaxy] have that we don't," said Schmid. "We have to mature as a team and that would allow us to make better decisions."
The Galaxy turns its focus to FC Dallas, who they will host next week at the Home Depot Center. The clubs are quite familiar with one another having only played two weeks ago, a match that the Galaxy won 2-1. Just one win away from returning to the Cup Final, Buddle admits that the club is looking to get a victory next week to have their shot at redemption in the MLS Cup.
"Last year's experience has helped us this year," said Buddle. We've been here before and we're hungry to get to get back to the finals and finish the job and I can definitely feel that in this locker room."