By Ridge Mahoney
Whether or not the Galaxy can dethrone two-time defending champion Monterrey in the Concacaf club semifinals, it is the only MLS team currently strong enough to challenge for the regional title.
The possible presence of Designated Players Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan will aid the Galaxy against Monterrey in the semifinal series that begins tonight at Home Depot Center (10 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel, Galavision) and concludes next Tuesday in Mexico. Yet it is by assembling a team strong down the middle and not simply throwing money at DPs has the Galaxy reached this stage where it compares favorably with its richer Mexican counterparts.
A central midfield pairing of Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas is still being refined and tweaked, yet the mix of toughness and talent in that part of the field is essential. As the links between a solid back line anchored by Omar Gonzalez and attacking edge supplied by Donovan and Keane and Mike Magee, they bring elements vital to staving off a talented opponent while probing for openings to be exploited.
A stifled midfield game plagued Seattle in its semifinal Tuesday against the other Mexican representative, Santos Laguna, and its crisp passing in the middle third seldom led to a penetrating pass or threatening cross. As Fox Soccer analyst Keith Costigan pointed out, a lot of “huffing and puffing” led only to errant passes or flimsy high balls.
A monster game by Osvaldo Alonso, unfortunately, wasn’t complemented by creative playmaking nor incisive dribbling from his teammates. Mario Martinez struggled to get past anyone and resorted to weak shots from middle distance. Midfielder Mauro Rosales came off the bench and did the necessary hard work without breaking through, and a forward line led by Sammy Ochoa lacked the guile to escape the Santos defenders.
The Sounders were missing Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins, both injured, and doubtless the attack suffered by their absence. Santos Laguna relied on moderate midfield pressure and patient tracking to close off the passing lanes, and ruthlessly gobbled up the aimless through ball or desperation cross that usually ensued when the Sounders were forced into a decisive moment.
Escaping pressure and exploiting space in the attacking third are staples of the Galaxy’s success, as evidenced by Magee picking up the scoring slack -- he leads the team with five goals -- as Donovan completed his hiatus. The Galaxy’s “huffing and puffing” in midfield, where Sean Franklin and Michael Stephens have also seen time, is coordinated and cohesive. When the Sounders ran out of ideas they also ran out of space, and all their admirable work in the middle third went unrewarded.
The semis fell at maybe the worst possible time for the Sounders, mired in a winless run to open the league campaign and weakened by injuries. Ochoa has proven to be a capable backup against MLS opposition but he ran ground constantly against Santos, which counterattacked sharply several times and probably deserved more than the one goal it got through former MLSer Herculez Gomez.
This isn’t the ideal time for the Galaxy either, with Donovan just back in the team, Keane hobbled by a calf strain suffered in late March playing for Ireland, and keeper Carlo Cudicini chafing from a couple of costly errors. Young guns Jose Villarreal and Jack McBean have been carrying the forward flag much of the time, and will probably be called upon, depending on how Keane and Donovan are able to contribute.
On the plus side, Gonzalez is perhaps in the best form of his career, coming off a pair of strong showings for the USA in Hexagonal play that included a 0-0 tie with Mexico in Azteca Stadium. One of Monterrey’s key midfielders is Mexican international Jesus Zavala, whose interplay with Walter Ayovi and Neri Cardozo will give Sarvas and Juninho plenty to deal with, and all that defensive work could limit how much the Galaxy midfielders can contribute to the attack.
Gonzalez and Co. usually got the better of Zavala and his mates in the Azteca, but though Monterrey is struggling in league play it knows how to get results on the road in CCL play. Two years ago in the CCL finals, Monterrey beat Real Salt Lake, 1-0, at Rio Tinto Stadium after tying 2-2 at home.
Monterrey is also bounding into this CCL semifinal off a 3-0 thrashing of UNAM in its league game last weekend, and has won or tied four of its last five league games.
“The team was desperate for win, and especially in front of the home crowd,” Zavala said to the team’s Web site. “Now we need to think about what comes next; important Concacaf games against the Galaxy and then a league match against Toluca. We have a chance to fight for the Liguilla, and we want to be in both tournaments. The team is convinced it can make the [Liga MX] playoffs and also win the title of Concacaf, which is what we want to do.”