In the two months since the Galaxy thumped the Sounders 4-0 at Qwest, little has changed -- well not anything that should make the Sounders feel any better about this match, anyway.
The Galaxy may not be the hottest team in MLS (that honors goes to Real Salt Lake which has not lost in the nine matches they've played since May 8), but they sit atop the standings six points clear of the next closest team. Buddle remains the top scorer in MLS, despite missing the Galaxy's last five games while he was with the U.S. Men's National Team. Even Ricketts, who has been reduced to supporting act to headliners Buddle and Landon Donovan, remains nearly perfect with nine shutouts in 13 matches and a videogame-esque .895 save percentage.
In fact, if anything has changed it's that the Galaxy are even deeper than was once believed.
Many expected an inevitable return to Planet Earth once the Galaxy lost the services of Buddle and Donovan to the World Cup. Instead, Los Angeles won its first three matches without them and have claimed 10 of the available 15 points (3-1-1), while outscoring opponents 7-2.
In their stead, players such as Jovan Kirovski and Tristan Bowen emerged as capable goal scorers, Michael Stephens began to establish himself as a legitimate playmaker and Omar Gonzalez bolstered his status as one of the top central defenders in MLS.
"Obviously it’s a team that has played different people with [Edson] Buddle and [Landon] Donovan being gone," Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. "But the game in May we felt the score was not reflective of the game but the only way we can prove that is to go out there and play well in L.A. against them. They are a team that puts a lot of emphasis on defending. They are looking to defend. They are looking to counter. They try and get through on the speed of Donovan and Buddle and then get some support players there as well. We just got to make sure we do a good job dealing with the counter. Playing-wise, style-wise, they really didn’t play any different while Buddle and Donovan were gone."
While the team the Sounders opened play against in May was heavily reliant upon the scoring of Buddle and playmaking of Donovan (the two of them had combined for nine of the team's 11 goals and accounted for seven of its 12 assists prior to their last meeting), the Galaxy are now considerably more balanced. The 11 different players who have scored for Los Angeles is the second most of any MLS team and their 28 assists by 10 different players suggests a team that is as balanced as any in the league.
Among the notable performers not named Landon or Edson:
- Stephens is third in the league with six assists; he had just two entering the last game against the Sounders
- Kirovski scored his first goal of the season against the Sounders and now has three this season
- Bowen had only played about 15 minutes in one match before May 8; the 19-year-old suddenly looks like a potential USMNT contender, having scored in consecutive weeks against Columbus and Houston
- Gonzalez, the reigning MLS Rookie of the Year, was already a known quantity; the fact that he's played every minute of every game certainly speaks to the faith his coaches have placed in him
With Buddle and Donovan back in the fold, the team the Sounders face on Sunday may be even better than the one they played back in May.
That the Sounders are hardly in top form -- losers of five of their last seven and winless against the Western Conference -- only serves to make this an even more daunting matchup.
If there is one break the Sounders catch, it could be that both Buddle and Donovan are expected to start. Buddle is almost a lock to start and could be suffering from some rust after playing sparingly during the USMNT's four matches.
Donovan, on the other hand, could conceivably suffer from the exact opposite problem. After playing 390-plus minutes during the World Cup, then jet-setting around the country from talk shows ranging from Regis & Kelly to the Daily Show and only returning to the Galaxy in the last few days, he could be a little weary. If he does indeed start, it will likely be at forward alongside Buddle instead of his more customary spot on the wing.
You can read whatever you want into this statement he made regarding Sunday's game:
"Physically, from a sleep standpoint, I’m a little tired and worn out," Donovan said. "Physically from a body standpoint, I played the last stretch of the World Cup with a strained hamstring so I need to rest that. Emotionally, I’m actually pretty excited about this game ...
"When a company like ESPN now wants to put our game on TV this Sunday, I think that says a lot. I think we’ve all seen what ESPN has done for this World Cup and how fantastic their coverage have been and how much it’s driven our sport, and when they’re behind our league as well it’s very helpful."
The potential weaknesses of Buddle and Donovan may very well be nothing more than wishful thinking, though.
More likely, if the Sounders are finally able to get the breakthrough win they have been searching for, it will be the result of something they have failed to do with regularity this year.
Whether it's putting a complete defensive effort together, controlling the midfield in a way that doesn't rely on backward passing or creating sustained offensive pressure that includes shots on goal, the Sounders will likely need one of their best efforts.
After surrendering six goals in their past two matches, the Sounders defense will be under the spotlight. If Donovan and Buddle indeed start up top, that will likely leave Stephens and Alex Cazumba as the outside mids.
Stephens, with a goal to go with those assist numbers, is making a strong bid for rookie of the year. He's quick and has shown a quality touch.
Cazumba is one of three Brazilians on the Galaxy roster and has moved around the field. In Buddle's absence, he's played some as a forward, which is his natural position, but is actually listed as a defender on the roster. He doesn't have many stats to show for his efforts (just one goal), but he's flashed some skill and has plenty of speed.
The Sounders offense has scored six goals in the past three MLS matches, which is its most productive stretch of the season, but struggled to find a rhythm in the loss at Philadelphia. The presence of Nate Jaqua, even if it's as a late sub, should help some.
The right side of the Galaxy defense is the more dynamic, with Sean Franklin often pushing forward on the wing and Gonzalez providing a physical presence in the middle.
The left side, from which Freddie Ljungberg will be attacking, has been less impressive. Center back Gregg Berhalter and fullback Todd Dunivant have been solid, but hardly stand out. Neither are particularly big, fast or technical and whatever pressure opponents seem to generate comes from their side.
"This is going to be our third game on the road in basically seven days so it's a difficult stretch for us," Schmid said. "But we have got to muster it up and we have got to show the character."