It seemed like a good idea -- to compare and contrast Sunday’s big games. Two clasicos really: From Spain, Real Madrid-Barcelona, and right here the Seattle Sounders-Los Angeles Galaxy. Maybe it’s stretching things a bit to dub the MLS game a clasico, if only because clasicos surely need a history. The American rivalry dates back only to 2009, a feeble six years compared to the Spanish version, which had its beginning 1902, since when 260 games have been played.
Nevertheless, Seattle vs. L.A. has all the potential of becoming a clasico and probably pretty soon. Firstly because things change so quickly these days, and secondly because all those wonderful MLS marketing geniuses will make sure they promote the hell out of the Spanish word and spread it as widely as possible. I see an instant clasico being born next year: The New York Red Bulls-New York City FC.
On Sunday, we started in Madrid. The hype here -- logically enough -- was that we would get a ton of goals, Why not -- with Ronaldo and Lionel Messi and Neymar and James and Karim Benzema and Luis Suarez on the field? Why not? -- because that’s not the way soccer works. I was thinking a 0-0 tie was more likely. I got that wrong, but neither did we get massive scoring.
Real deserved its 3-1 win, recovering from the shock of giving up a goal to Neymar in the fourth minute and eventually dominating the game rather comfortably. Definitely not one of Barcelona’s better days. Suarez, after a bright beginning (he got the assist on Neymar’s goal), faded away and was subbed out in the second half. As was Xavi. Messi disappointed and was guilty of one shocking miss. Andres Iniesta departed with an injury.
Real took full advantage of Barcelona’s woes and a penalty from Ronaldo, a header from Pepe and a rasping shot from Benzema brought them three goals. Particularly encouraging for Real was the excellent form of its new Colombian midfielder James, who provided a wonderful assist for Benzema.
Overall, there was plenty of very good soccer to be seen. But this still lacked the extra sharp edge, the excitement that a real clasico should have, that game-long feeling that something dramatic is always about to happen. Mostly this was because Barcelona’s formidable attacking strength was effectively snuffed out by Real.
Snuffing out strikers was also a prominent feature of the Seattle-L.A. game. Of course, the most dangerous striker in MLS, Robbie Keane, was in no need of being snuffed -- he wasn’t there, apparently being saved by the Galaxy for the upcoming playoffs.
Which, I suppose, tells us something about what the Galaxy think of this ridiculously named Supporters Shield -- a trophy for the team with the highest number of regular season points. While the trophy itself means little, it can be seen as a useful step on the path to winning MLS Cup because it ensures home team advantage in the playoffs. But not important enough for the Galaxy to put Keane on the field.
Seattle’s big attacking guns, Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins, were both there and were duly snuffed out by the L.A. defense (lacking its key player, Omar Gonzalez) to the extent that Seattle did not get off a single shot on goal in the first half.
Landon Donovan’s performance echoed that of Messi in Madrid -- good in parts, but thoroughly patchy. Exactly as in Madrid, the longer the game went on more the life drained out of it.
Not that the game had ever exactly summoned up any exciting rhythm. At halftime, Seattle coach Sigi Schmid had complained that the Galaxy was doing a lot of tactical fouling, making it difficult for Seattle to engineer any passing movements. He was right -- but it did seem to me that Seattle was equally guilty of prolific fouling. The game featured 40 fouls, which is a lot (in fact, 30 is already above average) -- but the distribution, 19 by Seattle, 21 by L.A., doesn’t really indict L.A. as the chief offender.
Some 20 minutes into the second half, the conviction grew that Seattle was settling for the tie that would give them the Shield.
But clearly, there was life in the game yet. It burst forth in the 71st minute when Dempsey was knocked down by a double collision with Marcelo Sarvas and Leonardo, and a brawl broke out with plenty of hefty pushing and shoving. Referee Mark Geiger issued yellow cards to Seattle’s Gonzalo Pineda and to the Galaxy’s Sarvas, though how Osvaldo Alonso escaped punishment is baffling.
A word about referee Geiger. He was, not that long ago, clearly the USA’s best referee. But since he has come under the influence of PRO boss Peter Walton, his performances have been less satisfactory -- mainly because he is now much less authoritative in dishing out deserved punishment. In this game, there were strong cases, all of which Geiger ignored, for yellow-carding Alonso (twice) and L.A.’s Juninho, and for giving second yellows to Zach Scott and Dempsey.
But we were in for a rousing finish, sparked by the entry of Seattle’s Marco Pappa in the 73rd minute. The Guatemalan quickly livened things up with a shot that was deflected for a corner kick, by fouling Donovan, by taking a dangerous corner kick and then by taking a pass from Martins to score the crucial first goal of the game with a low, left-foot shot from some 10 yards.
The tempo quickened. L.A., now having to score twice for the win it needed, was not about to go quietly. A great chance fell to substitute Alan Gordon, but his shot was lacking power, and straight at Stefan Frei anyway.
Pappa had the last word. Deep into added time, he caught Galaxy keeper Jaime Penedo dribbling the ball outside his area. Penedo neatly skipped away from Pappa’s first challenge, but Pappa came back for more and won the ball -- though there was a pretty strong suspicion that he fouled in doing so. Referee Geiger saw it as a clean challenge, and Pappa now had a clear path to the empty goal. Well, not quite -- A.J. DeLaGarza had raced back and now blocked Pappa’s progress. Pappa could have shot, he could have dribbled around DeLaGarza, or he could have laid the ball off to Martins, arriving at full speed to his right. But Pappa’s instincts -- you can call it his selfishness if you like -- told him that this was his own moment ... so he did the audacious thing, brought his trusty left foot into action again, and chipped (or was it scooped?) the ball superbly over DeLaGarza and into the goal.
OK -- the level of soccer play, and of soccer sophistication, was higher, appreciably higher in the Real-Barca game. That is not to belittle the American game, which had its moments, and which was probably the equal of the Spanish game in terms of competitive energy.
Well, a clasico has to start sometime, somewhere, and this looks like a genuine candidate -- as distinct from something pushed forward by the marketeers.
And Pappa put on a fine ending for a game that, while it never hit the heights, had enough action and excitement to justify a clasico definition ... or at least an embryonic clasico.