The game tape of the LA Galaxy’s 1-0 win over the Seattle Sounders Sunday night will probably never make its way into the archives of the Hall of Fame.
It was exciting, and it was loud, and brilliant moments from Edson Buddle and Donovan Ricketts carried the day. But in soccer terms, this was much more slugfest than sweet science.
And that’s precisely what Bruce Arena and the Galaxy wanted. They got their way, and that’s why they’re going back to The Home Depot Center with a 1-0 aggregate lead.
WATCH: Full match highlights
Both the Galaxy and the Sounders play 4-4-2 formations, but the similarities beyond that are few. The Galaxy, for example, tend to only have one of their outside backs (usually right back Sean Franklin) overlap, while the left-sided back merely pushes up to support.
The Sounders play with two central midfielders — Nathan Sturgis and Osvaldo Alonso — who are natural d-mids but bring an offensive mentality to the spot and get into the attack. Seattle’s two flank midfielders stay wide and use their speed to both pin back the opposing midfield and defense, and create room for forwards Freddy Montero and Blaise N’Kufo.
The Galaxy are the only team in the league to play without a true d-mid. Dema Kovalenko is generally mistaken for one, but Kovalenko spends little time shielding the defense and instead roams freely through the middle, a shin-seeking missile intent upon destroying build-ups where and whenever he can. Juninho, more of a two-way midfielder than a d-mid, is tasked with covering for Kovalenko, but the reality is that LA’s central defensive duo are left to their own devices as often as not.
And while the two Sounders wide mids stay high and wide, assisting more than facilitating the attack, LA’s pair (Landon Donovan and David Beckham) pinch in, drop deep, or dive to the penalty spot as the situation allows, and are the main drivers behind everything the Galaxy do offensively.
Two similar formations, but two very different approaches.
The First Half
Ever since trading away Freddie Ljungberg midseason, Seattle have put out one of the most attractive attacking sides in the league. The ability of both Sturgis and Alonso to hold the ball under pressure and cover for each other opens space for the rest of the Sounders players.
Add the fact that in Jeff Parke and Patrick Ianni the Sounders boast two of the league’s best distributors from central defense, and it’s plain to see why Seattle were one MLS’ best teams from about July onwards.
The task for LA, then, was simple: Break Seattle’s rhythm. Force them to choose the lesser option on each pass, and don’t let Sturgis and Alonso dictate the pace and tempo of the game.
The Sounders had an early — very early, within 30 seconds of the whistle — chance by Alonso that Ricketts parried away, and later in the half Montero had two great chances that Ricketts saved spectacularly. But in each case, the shots were a product of something of a mad scramble and individual effort rather than a series of passes designed to probe the defense and carve out space to shoot.
WATCH: Alonso denied by Ricketts early
Unleashing Kovalenko and the rest of the Galaxy midfield was the key. Seattle never got a rhythm because, no matter where they turned, there was always a guy in white there to force a backpass or a long-ball or, occasionally, to kick pieces out of them.
Donovan said after the game that he felt the Galaxy accomplished their goal by controlling the middle, but he’s wrong. The Galaxy accomplished their goal by forcing both teams into the type of game where midfield control was an impossibility.
It wasn’t long before Seattle began bypassing Alonso and Sturgis entirely, and though they were still able to create chances, they were no longer playing their own game.
The goal came on one of those long balls, one that was cleared straight back up the field by Omar Gonzalez before falling to Buddle's feet. Buddle did what MVP candidates should do: He seized the moment, created some space and hit an impossible-to-save wonder-goal from 30 yards.
That play epitomized LA’s offensive strategy. “If you find space, have a go. If you can’t, try to create a set-piece.”
Playoff soccer distilled to its essence.
WATCH: Buddle's wonder goal
The Second Half
LA clamped down even more in the second half, all but eliminating Franklin’s overlapping runs and keeping Kovalenko deeper. With his team no longer able to really threaten LA with speed, Sigi Schmid was forced to sub in Alvaro Fernandez for Sanna Nyassi in an effort to get another playmaker on the field and change up Seattle's spacing.
Even with Fernandez, LA was able to strangle the life out of the game and still threaten with counterattacks. The closest either team came to netting in the second half was when Donovan, Mike Magee and Juninho strung together a neat sequence that ended with the Brazilian firing just wide in the 85th minute.
Moments later Seattle got their best look, but substitute Nate Jaqua fired weakly at Ricketts’s near post. Ricketts saved easily and the Galaxy proceeded to run out the clock for the precious first-leg win.
LA has never been the most elegant team, but even by their standards this was a pragmatic — some might say cynical — victory. Cynical or not, it was certainly effective and there’s little reason to change tactics in the second leg.
Seattle probably won’t change too much themselves. For all the frustration they’re feeling over squandering their only home playoff game, the Sounders were still generating chances and making Ricketts work. Better finishing could have meant a 2-1 lead instead of a 1-0 deficit.
For leg two, expect Alonso to play a bit higher in an effort to draw the LA midfield into conceding dangerous set-pieces, and don’t be overly surprised if Fernandez gets the nod over Nyassi from the start.
Matthew Doyle can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed at twitter.com/mls_analyst.
With the Galaxy ahead 1-0 on the series, LA host Seattle in the second game of the two-leg, home-and-home Western Conference Semifinals on Sunday, November 7 at 6 p.m. PT on ESPN. BUY TICKETS