The 2010 playoffs are starting out the same way the 2010 regular season did: with the LA Galaxy looking unbeatable.
Sunday’s 2-1 win over the Seattle Sounders – for a 3-1 win on aggregate – was something closer to “workmanlike” than it was to “emphatic.” But for veteran teams, that’s what the playoffs are about. Find your form, trust your tactics and make sure you don’t crest too soon.
That’s where the Galaxy are right now. Seattle, for all their talent and great second-half of the season, just couldn’t make a significant dent in LA’s armor.
Seattle came out with roughly the same 4-4-2 formation they’ve used since June. Their bread-and-butter is getting wingers Steve Zakuani and Sanna Nyassi out wide, isolating them on a lone defender, and letting them create. Forwards Freddy Montero and Blaise Nkufo take turns dropping into the hole to provide creativity from the central channel, while dual d-mids Nathan Sturgis and Osvaldo Alonso use short passing and quick switches to maintain possession.
The only real change to the Sounders’ lineup was Tyrone Marshall filling in for the injured Jeff Parke. It was a significant loss; Parke was the league’s best central defender in the second half of the year, and one of the big reasons SSFC had such a dramatic improvement in form after a lukewarm start.
LA also play a 4-4-2, though it’s different from Seattle’s. Instead of staying wide like Zakuani and Nyassi, LA’s wingers – Landon Donovan and David Beckham – are encouraged to roam and given license to pinch inside as needed. Beckham, in particular, plays a very central role, which gives right back Sean Franklin room to make overlapping runs into the attacking third.
Twin central mids Dema Kovalenko and Juninho both play higher up the pitch than their Seattle counterparts.
The First Half
A few weeks back, I wrote about “The Fundamentals Torture-Chamber,” a turn of phrase borrowed from Bill Simmons. The defining characteristic of a Torture-Chamber game is when one well-coached team finds an opponent's flaw and ruthlessly exploits it.
Seattle’s flaw was a right side that wasn’t up to the task of matching Donovan and shutting down the Galaxy attack. Both Nyassi, who was pulled at halftime, and right back James Riley had “deer-in-headlights” performances, and LA were only too happy to take advantage time and again.
Both goals came from set-pieces – which the Galaxy execute better than any other team in the league – that were won down that left-hand side of the LA attack.
The first was a neat combination play between Donovan and Eddie Lewis (who might want to rethink retirement; he certainly hasn’t looked like a guy who’s got nothing left to spend on the field) that left both Riley and Nyassi flat-footed. Lewis’ cross was stabbed out for a corner, which Beckham dropped neatly onto the head of Edson Buddle for the 1-0 lead.
The second goal came after Donovan suckered Nyassi into a silly foul 40 yards out. Neither was a simple play; the first, in particular, was a very nice piece of timing and skill that any team would have been hard-pressed to stop. But if you want to win in the postseason, you can’t just be “any team,” and you can’t lose those types of individual battles.
Seattle did. Omar Gonzalez nodded home Beckham's service, and the Galaxy had one foot in the Western Conference Championship before the game was even 30 minutes old.
The Second Half
Seattle coach Sigi Schmid made two big adjustments at the break. The first was bringing on Uruguayan midfielder Álvaro Fernández for Nyassi, and the second was pushing Alonso into the attack, thus keeping Montero and Nkufo higher.
This had the effect of pressing the Galaxy back line deeper and making space, both on and off the ball, for the Sounders midfielders. Alonso was able to use that space, playing diagonal balls over the top of the Galaxy defense at every opportunity. Both Montero and Zakuani had multiple chances on goal, with the latter finally breaking through in the 86th minute.
LA were complicit in Seattle’s rejuvenation, since they were keeping both Kovalenko and Juninho deeper and conceding much of the midfield. It wasn’t precisely bunker-ball, but the Galaxy had the look of a team only too happy to run out the clock and try to bag another goal on the break.
Chances are, if they get a multiple-goal lead in the conference finals, they’ll do the same thing.
The best part of this series for MLS fans is the real antipathy these two teams seem to have developed for one another.
The “everybody knows everybody, we’re all in the same boat” nature of US soccer had always dampened all but the most heated of MLS rivalries. However, with expansion, growing rosters, a higher cap and the retirement of most of the old guard, the league has changed. Franchises have distinct collective memories now, and everything about the way these two teams approached each other said “I don’t like you at all, and I never have.”
That makes for good entertainment.
Seattle will have to nurture that hatred and use it as a motivator heading into 2011. Assuming they hold onto Montero and Zakuani, they’ll enter next season as one of the favorites.
LA, on the other hand, aren't thinking about 2011 just yet. They have a date with FC Dallas next Sunday, November 14 for the right to play in the MLS Cup at The Home Depot Center at 6 p.m. PT.
The Galaxy will want to do what they did in the first half against Seattle: Push Donovan high into the attack, get set-pieces and hope Kovalenko and Juninho keep Daniel Hernandez and Dax McCarty under wraps. Kovalenko’s ability to hurry Hernandez and clog up FCD’s central midfield will be a key factor.
Whoever wins those particular battles will most likely win the game.
Matthew Doyle can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed at twitter.com/mls_analyst.
The Galaxy face FC Dallas in the Western Conference Championship on Sunday, November 14 at 6 p.m. at The Home Depot Center. Tickets are available as low as $20! BUY TICKETS