[MLS] The 2011 season kicks off with a rare Tuesday night game (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN Deportes) at Qwest Field between Seattle and Los Angeles. Each team will have 33 more league games to play at the final whistle, yet there's a lot riding on this one. Of many talking points here are four of the most compelling:
SIGI VS. BRUCE. With two MLS titles apiece -- nobody has won more -- coaches Sigi Schmid and Bruce Arena are eager to overtake the other, and there's always something extra on the line when Schmid faces the team that fired him in 2005 with the Galaxy in first place. Schmid won the 2008 title with Columbus before leaving to take the Seattle job; growing tinier in the rear-view mirror is Arena's second title with D.C. United way back in 1997.
STAR POWER. The glamorous Galaxy has burnished itself to an even brighter sheen (gratuitous reference for the Hollywood connection) by adding Juan Pablo Angel to the Landon Donovan-David Beckham binary star system. Seattle fancies itself as the Galaxy’s equal on the field if not in the gossip pages, but the Galaxy won all four regular-season and playoff meetings last year, including a 4-0 thrashing and 1-0 playoff triumph at Qwest Field.
Seattle’s two DPs, Blaise Nkufo and Alvaro Fernandez, joined the team last year in midseason after playing in the World Cup and after a few bright displays faltered at the end. With a full preseason of preparation they will be monitored closely to gauge their impact against the Supporters’ Shield winner and playoff victor.
MIDFIELD MIGHT. The Galaxy used nearly a dozen players in midfield during the 2010 season, and not always did the preferred combination click. Yet it did effectively neutralize the Sounders in that portion of the field in the playoffs. An injury to Brad Evans and the Freddie Ljungberg soap opera plagued Seattle until Sanny Nyassi, Oswaldo Alonso and Steve Zakuani got their midfield groove back in August.
Come late October and early November, though, the Galaxy reigned. Since then its midfield has been revamped in the wake of multiple retirements (Eddie Lewis, Chris Klein, Dema Kovalenko), and newcomer Paolo Cardozo has joined Juninho, Chris Birchall and Michael Stephens in the battle for spots. For Seattle, Evans and Alonso have been reunited in the middle, but Nyassi left in the Expansion Draft and Uruguayan Alvaro Fernandez has been quiet in preseason. He flubbed two great scoring chances against Portland in the Cascadia Summit, and that simply won’t do when the games count. The Timbers also blunted Zakuani for long periods by driving attacks up his flank.
CLASH OF COLOMBIANS. Wearing the Galaxy colors for the first time in a competitive match, Angel will face fellow Colombians Fredy Montero and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado of the Sounders. Angel will be marked at times by Hurtado, who played just nine games last year before a torn ACL in his left knee sidelined him for the season. His return, and that of Evans, plus a long-term deal for Montero (who had been on loan) are among the major reasons the Sounders believe this is their year to take it all.
The Galaxy feels the same way about its chances with Angel, whose ability to sneak away from even the best defenders and hit the target (45 goals in three MLS seasons, more than any other player during that span) is one quality that Donovan believes sets him apart. “His instinct in front of goal is as good as anyone I’ve ever seen,” says Donovan. “He just knows where to put the ball and how to put the ball, what kind of pace to put on the ball, what kind of shot to take in different situations. He just understands all of that, it comes natural to him.
“He plays differently than most guys I’ve ever played with. He just shows up in great spots. A lot of times you don’t see him in a play but the ball shows up in front of goal and he’s on it.”