For the first time in four tries, the Seattle Sounders ousted the LA Galaxy in the MLS playoffs. Now they're eyeing bigger and better things despite some key injuries, writes Liviu Bird.
SEATTLE—After just a few moments, it was obvious that the Seattle Sounders’ 3-2 win over the LA Galaxy on Wednesday wouldn’t be like most games. It was a game between two teams whose attacks could bring any defense in Major League Soccer to its knees. When they went head-to-head, in the playoffs no less, it became quite a spectacle.
Off the opening kickoff, Seattle right back Tyrone Mears played a weak ball toward Brad Evans, and Robbie Keane swooped in to pick it off. He ran straight toward goal, as both teams would do for much of their 90 minutes on the field, before Chad Marshall cleared it to safety.
“I think [it was] an exciting game,” Evans said after the game. “Historically, our games with the Galaxy, it’s always back and forth. … They’re a wide-open team, and that’s the way that they play. They push forward no matter what.”
Despite LA’s start, Seattle scored first. An easy goal fell to Clint Dempsey after Galaxy goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts botched his claim on a simple ball into the box in the fifth minute.
The lead lasted just seconds, as Sebastian Lletget scored off Gyasi Zardes’ first touch just inside the Seattle penalty area in the sixth.
The teams traded goals again in the 12th and 22nd minutes, Nelson Valdez sliding to connect with Andreas Ivanschitz’s wide free kick before Zardes smacked a shot into the top left-hand corner off a deflection.
Erik Friberg dealt the decisive blow for Seattle well into a much more mellow second half. He cleaned up a second weak clearance on the same ball into the box by hitting a shot across his body with his left foot, curling it over Ricketts and inside the right-hand post. It was the best goal of the night and an individual masterpiece.
However, beyond the excitement of the attacks on display in a classic MLS playoff match full of chaos lay a patchwork of broken defensive efforts. All three of the Sounders’ goals in particular seemed easily preventable to those on the other side.
“I think Christmas came early in Seattle. We absolutely gift-wrapped that game for them tonight. Our play in front of our goal defensively was atrocious,” Galaxy manager Bruce Arena said. “Give them credit—they jumped on the mistakes—but we were shockingly poor.”
The end result gave Seattle its first advancement in the playoffs at LA’s expense in four tries.
The teams met in 2010, 2012 and 2014, with the Galaxy winning each of those two-legged series. Finally, the circumstances lined up for a Sounders victory in front of 39,537 rain-soaked spectators at CenturyLink Field.
“It definitely feels special,” Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid said. “I think they knew this is a team that we’ve got to get off our backs.”
For LA, this season ended with the milieu of unmet expectations after the major midseason signings of Giovani dos Santos and Steven Gerrard. The defending MLS Cup champion had its chances, outshooting Seattle 11-9, but was left to contemplate its missed opportunities.
Keane hit the crossbar from distance in the 21st minute on his only shot of the game. Zardes was denied a second goal by Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei in the 83rd minute.
“We should’ve won this game tonight,” Arena said. “We have no one to look at but ourselves.”
L.A.’s soul-searching will likely lead it toward the final stretch of the regular season as well.
The Galaxy finished 2015 with a 1-5-2 record including Wednesday’s game, coming off an 8-2 run from June through August that Arena warned his team and the media about reading into too deeply. Ultimately, it cost his team a chance at a first-round bye, or, at the very least, hosting the elimination one-off.
With the New England Revolution also losing in the knockout round on the same day, both of the 2014 MLS Cup finalists are already out of the chase this year. The Sounders are still alive, having taken the lessons from their own atrocious 3-10 streak at about the same time that the Galaxy were winning all of their games.
“Having gone through some of the struggles that we went through, it makes you stronger. You learn more from failure than you learn from success sometimes,” Schmid said. “I think the guys know that this is a window of opportunity we’ve got to take advantage of.”
Seattle now faces the toughest test of its season, playing on short rest with a rash of personnel changes coming, dictated by injury. Evans pulled up with what looked like a hamstring strain in the closing moments on Wednesday, left back Leo González left in the first half and Osvaldo Alonso and Marco Pappa didn’t even make the match-day roster with their ailments.
Schmid said Pappa should be available on Sunday against either FC Dallas or the Vancouver Whitecaps at home, but Evans, González and Alonso’s statuses are unknown. Matching up against the youthful and pacey play of Dallas or Vancouver would be difficult without so many key pieces.
Thinking about the road ahead, the Sounders coach pointed to the character his team showed on Wednesday, trading blows with a powerful LA attack and adjusting to adversity on the fly.
When González left the game, Evans slid to left back. Later, Dempsey moved into midfield to allow Valdez, just off an injury of his own, to run in a less-demanding forward role.
It all points to a team in the right frame of mind to make a deep run, Schmid said, regardless of which particular 11 players take the field.
“I think what they showed tonight, which I know they have, is that ability to sacrifice for each other,” he said. “We set sort of a bar for ourselves in terms of the effort and the dedication that we want to put into games. One of the things we’ve talked about the last two games is, we’ve got to put our soul into everything we do from here on out. I think they did that, and that’s something that’s got to carry forward.”