The Galaxy lost the final to Real Salt Lake on penalty kicks and the sight of two rival teams playing for the title on their turf burns in the memories of Sounder players, coaches, executives and fans. Yet despite reaching the playoffs in each of its six MLS seasons, Seattle hasn’t reached an MLS Cup final.
Its path to the 2014 championship game, and a chance to host it at CenturyLink Field six years later, goes through L.A. The Galaxy hosts the first leg of the Western Conference finals Sunday (5 p.m. ET, ESPN2) at StubHub Center, and here are three key questions that could decide the outcome:
Western Conference Finals, First Leg
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 23
LA Galaxy vs. Seattle, 5:00 p.m. (ESPN, ESPN Deportes)
Western Conference Finals, Second Leg
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 30
Seattle vs. LA Galaxy, 9:00 p.m. ET (ESPN, ESPN Deportes)
1. Will game-breakers decide the game?
Seattle rides the talents of Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey, the Galaxy depends on Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane. Perhaps only the Red Bulls (Thierry Henry, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Peguy Luyindula, Tim Cahill) can match the Western finalists for game-breaking potential.
In the second leg of the Western Conference semifinals against RSL, Donovan hit a hat trick as he and Keane combined for four goals and four assists in a 5-0 romp. By contrast, both Martins and Dempsey were blanked twice as the Sounders prevailed over FC Dallas with the away goal after the series ended 1-1 on aggregate.
The duos put up staggering numbers in the regular season: a combined 32 goals and 23 assists for the Sounders, and 29 goals and 33 assists by the Galaxy. Yet in the teams’ three head-to-head meetings, Keane -- who sat out the regular-season finale three weeks ago -- hasn’t registered a goal nor an assist. The teams split the three games at 1-1-1 and on total goals the Galaxy edged out a 5-4 superiority.
Donovan scored a goal and assisted on the other two in a 3-0 Galaxy romp at CenturyLink in late July. Martins assisted on both goals, one of them scored by Dempsey, as the Sounders rallied for a 2-2 tie at StubHub Center a month ago. Martins and Dempsey assisted on Seattle’s first goal in that 2-0 win that closed out the 2014 campaign.
This year a third threat has merged on the Galaxy, Gyasi Zardes, who in just his second pro season commanded a starting spot alongside Keane and banged in 16 goals. He’s an imposing figure (6-foot-2, 175 pounds) for defenders to contend with, but what impresses Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid is how he’s melded with the ultra-talented Donovan and uber-demanding Keane. Since Keane joined the team in 2011, forwards other than Donovan have auditioned for the role unsuccessfully.
“Zardes has had a big impact,” said Schmid in a conference call with reporters Thursday. “He’s improved tremendously and he’s learned a lot from Robbie Keane certainly. The main thing I think is the understanding between him and Keane and Donovan in terms of their positioning to each other.”
2. Which team has the stronger supporting cast?
A glance at the scoring summaries of those three head-to-head meetings confirms there’s more to these two attacking fronts than just the big guns.
Galaxy midfielder Marcelo Sarvas, whose 11 assists in 2014 is a career high, exposed the Sounders several times. He assisted on two goals in the 3-0 victory and scored an apparent clinching goal prior to the Sounders’ rally in the 2-2 tie. Notching the other goal was Baggio Husidic, one of head coach Bruce Arena’s offseason signings who also set up Sarvas’ goal.
Husidic, formerly with the Fire, has played in the middle and also split time on the right flank with another newcomer, Swedish midfielder Stefan Ishizaki. He notched the final goal in the 3-0 victory, one of five he scored in 2014 to go along with seven assists. Toss in Sarvas’ 11 assists and his steady play alongside Juninho, add Donovan to the left flank and you have one of the league’s top midfields.
“Ishizaki is more of a winger, he’s going to take you on but he’s also a good striker of the ball,” says Schmid. “ He’s a good crosser of the ball. Between him and Husidic, whichever one’s on the field, it definitely changes their game a little bit. One is little more of a midfielder, one’s little more of a winger. But that’s just another example of Bruce liking to surround himself with veteran players, experienced players. Ishizaki has helped his team.”
Schmid, too, re-tooled his team after the 2013 season. Defender Chad Marshall, who played for him on the Crew’s 2008 MLS Cup-winning team, has shored up the middle well enough that he’s a Defender of the Year finalist. Schmid wanted greater impetus on the flanks and he got it from another former Fire player, Marco Pappa, who scored both goals in the 2-0 defeat of Los Angeles three weeks ago and hit the free kick that Osvaldo Alonso headed home for that precious away goal in the FCD series.
3. Will the layoff have an effect?
When the teams take the field Sunday, it will have been two weeks since they finished off the Western Conference semifinals. Seattle Alonso left the second game against FC Dallas with a hamstring injury and he’s been closely monitored in training by Schmid and the staff.
Arena believes that though the break interrupted a rhythm of regular competition each weekend, it came at a good team for players to heal up worn muscles and minor injuries. His lineup decisions are affected by an injury to Leonardo, who suffered a strained hamstring against RSL and was replaced by Tommy Meyer.
“Both teams have been required by the collective bargaining agreement to take three days off and I think both teams would probably tell you at this time of year, it’s time well spent, that they needed to step away a little bit from training," said Arena. “While we don’t typically like layoffs of two weeks, I think this time around it’s been good and likely for both teams, and I think on Sunday we’ll see two teams that are fresh and ready to play.”
The Sounders are laboring under a burden of playoff failures; by beating FCD it advanced for only the second time in six postseason appearances. As Supporters' Shield winner, that pressure increases. One of its losses is a 3-1 aggregate defeat to the Galaxy in 2010. Captain Brad Evans recalls what happened two years ago in a quick turnaround against the Galaxy under a different schedule.
“I remember a couple of years ago playing the Galaxy in this game at LA after three days’ rest against Salt Lake and getting smashed and having to chase at home,” Evans said of a series the Sounders lost, 4-2, after losing the first leg on the Galaxy’s home field, 3-0. “There’s still a bad taste in my mouth and in the back of my head [I'm concerned] with trying to control this game as much as possible and trying to play our style at the same time."