Thursday October 29th, 2015

SEATTLE — For the first time in four efforts, the Seattle Sounders advanced past the LA Galaxy in the playoffs by virtue of their 3–2 win in the knockout round on Wednesday. The match featured two high-powered attacks, replete with designated players, that were well-prepared to put on a show for the 39,537 fans at CenturyLink Field.

Clint Dempsey, Sebastian Lletget, Nelson Valdez and Gyasi Zardes traded goals in the first 22 minutes as two teams with serious star power came out firing. Neither defense looked comfortable for much of the game, and the midfielders found themselves craning their necks back and forth as the game largely passed them by.

Instead of playing through the middle, the teams clustered around each penalty area in turn, trying to get one more ball to fall kindly in the midst of the ping-pong being played inside both boxes. Finally, Erik Friberg hit a stunning volley in the 73rd minute to win the game—appropriate for the match, off another defensive error.

• Watch: Juan Agudelo scores bicycle kick golazo in MLS playoffs

With the win, Seattle moves on to the Western Conference semifinal, which kicks off with the Sounders at home on Sunday. If the Portland Timbers win on Thursday, Seattle will play FC Dallas; if Sporting Kansas City defeats the Timbers, then Seattle will play the Cascadia rival Vancouver Whitecaps.

Here are three quick thoughts on the game:

What a chaotic match

From the first whistle, LA and Seattle went after each other as only teams with this kind of individual quality could. Robbie Keane nearly got in behind the defense just seconds after kickoff, and Dempsey scored the first goal moments later. A barrage of four goals in the first 22 minutes made it impossible to look away from the action for even a second.

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The back-and-forth provided some great theater, but what it didn’t provide was a team willing to take control of the game, manage the tempo and be calmer and mentally stronger than the occasion. LA came closest to doing so, helped by the central midfield matchup of Juninho and Steven Gerrard against Erik Friberg and Andy Rose, two second-stringers making their second and first postseason starts, respectively.

It calmed down considerably in the second half, as neither team wanted to be on the receiving end of a killer goal at 2–2. Seattle worked its way into having control and the better chances in front of its home crowd, culminating in the winning goal. However, even with a slower tempo, it remained a game played primarily in the front and back thirds of the field, skipping the middle section in which neither team shined.

Goalkeepers continue to be an LA enigma

Subpar goalkeeping been a frequent theme for the Galaxy in the playoffs, and that continued on Wednesday. Donovan Ricketts botched a simple ball into the box on the first Seattle goal then remained rooted to his line, despite some bad marking from Gerrard, on the second. On the final goal, he came off his line and slipped, failing to reach the cross that ultimately fell for Friberg’s golazo.

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It’s hard to compete with Kevin Hartman, one of the league’s all-time greats, but since he left the team after the 2006 season LA’s quality at the position has plummeted. It looked like Bruce Arena finally sorted out the problem by signing Jaime Penedo, who anchored the team in its MLS Cup-winning effort last year, but he left after a contract dispute in July.

Signing a consistent shot-stopper should again be one of the team’s focuses this offseason. Especially with the focus on spending big in attack, the Galaxy needs a presence between the sticks that the team can rely on, and Ricketts hasn’t been that man since his excellent 2013 season in Portland.

Seattle will struggle if it continues playing without control

This really could be written about either team that played Wednesday night: Seattle can’t afford to defend as it did in the first half if it’s going to have success on Sunday. Especially with a short turnaround and two young, energetic attacks in Dallas and Vancouver awaiting, locking down the back end has to be a priority.

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Goalkeeper Stefan Frei has anchored the team well and did so again against LA, in contrast to his counterpart on the other end of the field, making an important save on Zardes in the 83rd minute to preserve the late lead. However, the players in front of him will have to do better because, as the Galaxy’s goals showed, he can’t be expected to stop everything.

Zach Scott offered a bit of experience and one-on-one ability in central defense that Brad Evans, still unaccustomed to the position after just a season of playing it sporadically, couldn’t match. If Leo González’s injury is serious enough to keep him out of Sunday’s game, that might be a blessing in disguise that forces manager Sigi Schmid to play Evans in his best position and actually strengthen the Sounders’ defense.

The return of Osvaldo Alonso in midfield would also be huge, as he controls so much of Seattle’s play from his deep-lying position in front of the defense. He also offers a consistent kickstart to the attack as MLS’s best passer in terms of completion percentage.

 

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