[MLS] In just its second MLS season, Seattle (14-10-6) has established itself as a model franchise by qualifying for the playoffs again while setting a league attendance record. It can further burnish its image with a conference semifinal series against Supporters’ Shield winner Los Angeles (18-7-5), which thumped the Sounders twice in their regular season meetings.
GOALKEEPING. Whatever else happens in this series, the goalkeeping should be reliable. Kasey Keller and Donovan Ricketts each recorded 11 shutouts, with the edge in goals-allowed going to Ricketts (0.90) over Keller (1.15). Both will be tested often by the quality crossing and incisive through balls that are features of two offenses that scored a combined 83 goals.
DEFENSE. Despite a stingy defense (26 goals allowed, second-best in MLS) the Galaxy is unclear about who will be the playoff partner for centerback Omar Gonzalez, already among the league’s elite in just his second season. Veteran Gregg Berhlater has looked slow since coming back from injury, so the spot may go to Leandro or one of the two speedsters, A.J. DeLaGarza or Sean Franklin. If there’s opportunity, left back Todd Dunivant will whip in the crosses. Seattle’s central combination of Jeff Parke and Pat Ianni has improved during the season but will be severely tested by the Galaxy, as will right back James Riley.
Edge: Los Angeles.
MIDFIELD. Nathan Sturgis has stabilized a Seattle midfield jarred by the departure of Freddie Ljungberg and injuries to Brad Evans to mesh nicely with the busy, tough and smart Oswaldo Alonso. The searing speed on the flanks of Steve Zakuani (10 goals, 6 assists) and Sanna Nyassi (2 goals, 3 assists) will be trouble if the Galaxy are sloppy. To complement Landon Donovan (league leader in assists with 16) and David Beckham, the Galaxy has many options, yet only veteran Eddie Lewis, who is retiring at the end of the season, is truly left-sided. Dema Kovalenko and Chris Birchall are the destroyers, Juninho plays nice balls into the seams.
FORWARDS. Edson Buddle just missed the Golden Boot by scoring 17 goals but his production tailed off after the World Cup, and the other options aren’t inspiring: Jovan Kirovski (four goals), Tristen Bowen (two), and Mike Magee (one). Possibly, Donovan (seven goals) plays up front, but regardless of where he plays he needs time and touches. Fredy Montero (10 goals, 10 assists) terrorized Seattle’s opponents for two-thirds of the season but is pointless in the past two months; still if he’s sharp on the ball there will be chances for Blaise Nkufo (five goals), Zakuani, and others.
Edge: Los Angeles.
COACHING. Between them, Galaxy coach Bruce Arena and Seattle headman Sigi Schmid have won four MLS Cups, and are well-steeped in playoff soccer. Both have done excellent work this season and are among the best tacticians in pressure situations.
REGULAR SEASON. The Galaxy handed the Sounders their worst defeat at Qwest Field, 4-0, in May, and won the return leg, 3-1, on the Fourth of July.
FORM. Seattle shook off an early season funk to win six and tie two of its last 10 league games. Los Angeles is a lukewarm 5-4-1 in its last 10 games and all four of those losses were at home.
PREDICTION: Galaxy, 4-2.