Seattle Sounders Triumph Over LA Galaxy Could Well Mark Watershed Moment In MLS History
By Graham Ruthven (@grahamruthven) If Major League Soccer play-off ties were decided purely on the strength and stature of respective starting lineups, the LA Galaxy would surely be set for a fourth MLS Cup title in five years. No other North American side claim the pedigree that Bruce Arena’s team boast. Unfortunately for the Carson club, the play-offs care little for reputation, form or anything else, for that matter. Wednesday’s knockout round win for the Seattle Sounders over the LA Galaxy will take some beating as the most enthralling game of the 2015 season, with result marking something of a watershed for the league. For those who claim MLS has become the domain of the biggest spenders, this was a rebuttal. Of course, the Sounders are hardly stingy themselves – with Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins among the league’s highest paid players – but they stunted any premature talk of the Galaxy perhaps being the strongest side in MLS history. Steven Gerrard, Robbie Keane, Giovani dos Santos and co. couldn’t stop a fast and furious Seattle side in front of a feverous, 35,000 strong crowd. And so the inquest begins in Carson. The Galaxy’s entire identity as an institution revolves around their status as MLS’s biggest and best club, illustrating by their ability to pull off transfer market coups that no other side in North America can. That image will need some rehabilitation after Wednesday’s result.
In Keane and dos Santos Arena has two of the league’s best attackers at his disposal, with the centre-back pairing of Omar Gonzalez and Leonardo giving the Galaxy an accomplished defensive basis. They have quality in goals, in the full-back positions and on the wings too. So where did it all go wrong? The answer might be found in midfield.
Against the Seattle Sounders at CenturyLink Field the Galaxy lacked balance and direction through the centre of the pitch. Their central unit was cut through with ease time after time, with LA’s midfielders seemingly unsure of their brief – were they there to defend or attack? If there was a source of the Galaxy’s problems, it was to be found there. But such midfield deficiency shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. Gerrard’s LA Galaxy debut, in the storming 5-2 win over the San Jose Earthquakes, hinted at his potential in MLS, but that match proved to be the peak for the former England and Liverpool captain in his debut season Stateside.
In actuality, Gerrard unsettled the Galaxy’s central unit – which until his arrival was among the best in MLS. With Arena attempting to shoehorn the 35-year-old in as the anchor at the base of his midfield, Juninho was pushed further up the field where he is less effective. The Brazilian pass-master was the glue holding LA together, but with him deployed in an unfamiliar position they were simply too fluid.
Arena chose to focus on the defensive lapses that cost his side dear in the Pacific Northwest, though. “Well, I think Christmas came early in Seattle,” he said. “We absolutely gift-wrapped that game for them tonight. Our play in front of our goal defensively was atrocious.” The Galaxy boss had a point, following Donovan Ricketts’ mistake for Seattle’s opener, and the slack backline play which led to the Sounders’ second and third too. Yet such defensive insecurity was perhaps the consequence of a midfield malaise which had bubbled to the surface in recent weeks. It’s something that must be addressed before next season, when excuses will be even harder to come by for the LA Galaxy. The problem with big signings is that they are expected to deliver big results – and such will be asked of both Gerrard and dos Santos next year. As for Wednesday’s victors, the Seattle Sounders have now banished the demons of previous play-off failures. This was a match that wiped the slate clean for Sigi Schmid’s side – and it might ultimately do the same for the Galaxy too.