The international break that falls during the MLS playoffs is often met with ridicule. The idea of taking two weeks off at what should be the most crucial point of the season feels a little like stalling at the top of a rollercoaster. But maybe not this year.
“We don’t typically like layoffs of two weeks, but I think this time around it’s been good, likely for both teams,” LA Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena, often an outspoken critic of the league’s sporadic scheduling and observance of FIFA dates, said on a media conference call Thursday. “I think on Sunday, we’ll see two teams that are fresh and ready to play.”
The LA Galaxy kicks off the Western Conference final against the Seattle Sounders on Sunday, with both teams benefiting from the break. LA last played Nov. 9 in a 5-0 win over Real Salt Lake.
The lengthy break has allowed LA center back Leonardo a chance to heal a hamstring strain he suffered in the last series, and Seattle midfielder Osvaldo Alonso picked up a similar injury in the Sounders’ last match, a scoreless draw against FC Dallas on Nov. 10. The players who were already healthy also feel a bit fresher and excited again to play for a trophy.
|U.S. icon||Landon Donovan||Clint Dempsey|
|MVP finalist||Robbie Keane||Obafemi Martins|
|Standout homegrown player||Gyasi Zardes||DeAndre Yedlin|
|MLS coaching wins||Bruce Arena (2nd)||Sigi Schmid (1st)|
|Record Quest||First to five MLS Cups||First to win U.S. treble (MLS Cup, Open Cup, Supporters' Shield)|
“At the end of the day, you want to get out there, and you want to play,” Sounders manager Sigi Schmid said. “Sitting around and waiting, and waiting, and waiting is not ideal. At this stage, you can tell at practice, the guys are chomping at the bit.”
Alonso’s odds of returning for the series seem high, especially with both teams taking a Players Union-mandated three days off from training during the international window. His progression in training has been positive, and his competitive nature means he’ll likely play even if he’s taped to the hilt.
Seattle’s midfield metronome received his just reward for excellent play throughout his time with the Sounders with a Designated Player contract after last season. He scored the decisive goal in Seattle’s away-goals victory over Dallas in the conference semifinals, and teammate Brad Evans said Alonso’s worth to the team should be obvious.
“I think he’s a guy that when you go into national team camps, you’d like to see him there. He’s definitely even a talking point when you go into camps,” Evans said. “I think everybody knows who he is, and obviously, his play speaks for himself. He doesn’t get the accolades that maybe he deserves, and he’s not one that craves that sort of attention or those accolades. He just wants to play the game and, most importantly, he likes to win.”
Alonso, who defected to the United States from Cuba, is still in FIFA limbo with regard to his national team status. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said in the past that the two national federations would have to cooperate to get Alonso’s allegiance changed, but that hasn’t happened yet.
LA has a couple of under-appreciated midfielders of its own in Marcelo Sarvas and Juninho, who play underneath the Galaxy’s attacking trio of Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan and Gyasi Zardes. Both have played pivotal roles in filling the void left by David Beckham’s departure.
“If you look at the performance of those two midfielders, they’ve been fantastic,” Keane said. “It’s been a little bit different, but it’s not something that we think about too much, that David’s gone. … It’s important that we focus on what we have here.”
Both teams’ attacks receive most of the attention, with LA’s trio and Seattle’s Obafemi Martins-Clint Dempsey forward partnership, but both are well acquainted with each others’ details beyond who scores the goals.
“I think our clubs know each other fairly well,” Schmid said. “The key players know each other, also. They’re a team that has some great individual talent — I think we do as well — and I really think it comes down to execution on the day.”
The Galaxy and Sounders have faced off three times already this season, with two of those late-season meetings deciding the Supporters’ Shield would go to the Emerald City. The Galaxy didn’t even speak about how to approach playing Seattle again until Thursday, Arena said, but the familiarity between the two ensures that preparation will be minimal.
This is the matchup the league has been waiting for: the league’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams during the regular season playing to decide which will host the MLS Cup final. Finally, after the length of the build-up to kickoff on Sunday and countless rehashing of the individual talent involved, it’s time to get the series underway.
“What I’ve learned is that we know everything about each other, and there’s not a whole lot of preparation,” Arena said. “We’ve just got to go out and play.”