[MLS] The players who didn't play generated nearly as much buzz as those who did as MLS staged its 2011 league opener Tuesday night. Because of illness, Juan Pablo Angel didn't make his Galaxy debut, and defender Omar Gonzalez also sat out the match. And only hours before MLS First Kick 2011, the Seattle Sounders announced that they released Swiss international Blaise Nkufo, one of their three Designated Players.
Yet midfielder Juninho drilled a shot that Angel and any other renowned goalscorer would applaud to down Seattle, 1-0, in front of a drenched and deeply disappointed crowd of 36,443 at Qwest Field.
An hour before kickoff the Sounders announced Nkufo had been terminated without explanation. A team statement said his representatives are negotiating a buyout with Seattle officials and a mention of the salary cap by general manager Adrian Hanauer lends suspicion a new signing is imminent. (Argentine midfielder Mauro Rosales has been at training sessions during the preseason.)
Lacking Nkufo, Seattle’s attack relied mostly on Steve Zakuani and Fredy Montero, who threatened the Galaxy goal several times but were unable to match Juninho’s 25-yard blast that nicked off the gloves of Kasey Keller in the 38th minute. Keller dived to his near post and got a piece of the shot but couldn’t quite keep his glove high enough to deflect the ball wide.
Seattle thus failed to score against Los Angeles at Qwest for the third straight game, following a 4-0 loss during the regular season and a 1-0 playoff defeat last year. The Galaxy holds a 5-1-1 all-time record (3-1-1 regular season) against Seattle and former Galaxy head coach Sigi Schmid.
Galaxy coach Bruce Arena held Angel and defender Omar Gonzalez, bothered by a sprained shoulder, off the team sheet, and used Landon Donovan up top with Chad Barrett. Donovan nearly made it 2-0 early in the first half with a blast off the junction of post and crossbar, and when Seattle struggled to gain a foothold in midfield Donovan’s runs and touches dictated the course of the game for long periods.
Also left out of the lineup was keeper Donovan Ricketts, bothered by a hamsting strain. Backup Josh Saunders – who replaced an injured Ricketts at Qwest in the 2009 MLS Cup – rose to the occasion again. He stopped Montero several times, including a tip save of a dipping shot in the 58th minute. He ignored the heavy rain to bat away crosses as Seattle pushed players forward without reward.
O’Brian White, given the start in Nkufo’s place, narrowly missed the far post with a first-time redirection from a low Zakuani cross, and substitute Roger Levesque failed to put away a Montero serve shortly before Saunders got a finger to Montero’s shot.
A hamstring strain also sidelined Sounders midfielder Brad Evans, which gave a spot to Swedish midfielder Erik Friberg. He marked his MLS debut by studding Donovan with a high kick that earned him a caution just before halftime.
Both teams play again this weekend. Seattle is at New York Saturday and the Galaxy hosts New England on Sunday.
Regarding the release of Nkufo, GM Hanauer said, "We want to thank Blaise for his contributions to the team last season. Blaise is a quality person and we wish him nothing but the best."
Nkufo, 35, played in 11 regular-season matches in 2010 after joining Seattle from FC Twente following the 2010 World Cup.