Coming into the season, the main focus for opponents of the Galaxy was figuring out how to stop Landon Donovan. He is generally considered one of the top offensive players to ever suit up for the U.S. National Team, is the reigning MLS MVP and was coming off a relatively successful stint in the English Premier League.
Seven games into the season, he's clearly playing second-fiddle (at least in the media) to teammate Edson Buddle. The 29-year-old striker has discovered a form that has rarely been seen in MLS. Through seven games, he has nine goals and one assist, having a hand in all but one of his team's goals. He has scored with his head, off volleys, in the air, on the ground, through several defenders ... just about every way except for on a penalty kick. No other player in MLS has more than three non-penalty kick goals this year. Buddle is averaging 1.29 goals per game, a figure only seven non-Galaxy teams currently surpass.
"We need to be aware of where he is at all times," said Tyrone Marshall, one of the players who will be largely tasked with trying to shut down Buddle. "You don't want him to get a free opportunity on goal. Whoever is close has to be challenging him."
While Buddle is definitely grabbing the headlines and accolades, Donovan has thrived as Buddle's wing man. Although he has yet to score a goal this season, Donovan has hit the woodwork twice in the last two weeks and remains as dangerous a passer as ever, leading the league in assists with six.
"Landon is a proven veteran," Marshall said. "He played at the highest level. He's one of those guys that is a danger whenever he has the ball. He definitely attracts attention. Buddle and those other guys can peal away from him and then you're attracted to Landon and what he's going to do.
"We have to make sure the boys in front of us are doing their jobs, which is to keep Landon and those guys in check."
With the Sounders midfielders more concentrated in the center of the field, the potential exists for a player like Donovan to find vast open spaces where he is free to create and lob passes to the multi-talented Buddle and Alan Gordon, who has developed into an effective target forward.
Donovan is usually listed as a midfielder, and the Galaxy call their formation a 4-4-2, but Donovan seems to usually occupy an area that is more aligned with the forwards than the other midfielders, who tend to take over more of the defensive responsibilities.
It's not even all that out of the ordinary for Donovan to streak down the field on long clearances in a manner not all that dissimilar from Freddie Ljungberg.
The story of the 2010 Galaxy is not all about Donovan and Buddle, though. The Galaxy defense has actually been just as good, if not better from a statistical standpoint.
Leading the way on that side of the field is goal keeper Donovan Ricketts.
Ricketts already has five clean sheets in seven matches, a .905 save percentage and a .29 goals against average, all of which are tops in the league. Just two shots have eluded the Jamaican keeper this year. To put his play in context, take away all nine of Buddle's scores and the Galaxy would still be 1-1-5 with eight points and very much in the playoff race.
Those numbers have come against some of the more productive teams in MLS. The Galaxy have blanked teams with the second most goals (Chivas USA, 10 goals), the third most (Houston, nine) and the two teams tied for fifth (the Rapids and Revolution, eight apiece). Galaxy opponents have scored, on average, 1.45 goals per game against the rest of their competition. If that average represented one team, it would rank as the fourth-highest scoring side in MLS. The Galaxy have held those teams to .29 goals per game, which is less than half as many goals as last-place DC United average.
Ricketts deserves much of the credit for those numbers. The Jamaican keeper, now in his second MLS season after playing several years in Europe, appears to be playing the best soccer of his career. Not only is he getting in front of more shots, but he's allowing fewer rebounds and second opportunities.
Marshall, who has played extensively with Ricketts on the Jamaican national team, says that if the 6-4 keeper has a weakness it's on balls lower to the ground.
So far, the Galaxy defenders have done a reasonable job limiting those opportunities. Galaxy opponents are putting, on average, 3.0 shots on goal per match. Only Chivas USA (2.86) is doing a better job of limiting opponents on-frame opportunities. Even using the looser standard of shots per game, the Galaxy still rate in the top four with an 8.71 average.
A significant amount of that defensive work has been done by a pair of second-year players, AJ DeLaGarza and Omar Gonzalez, the reigning MLS rookie of the year. The two youngsters have been paired together on the right side, with veterans Todd Dunivant and, recently, Gregg Berhalter on the opposite side.
What this likely means is that Steve Zakuani's speed will be up against the faster of the Galaxy's defensive players, while Brad Evans' ability to find open space will be tested by the more veteran side of the defense.
As much attention as the Galaxy offense has received, the real deciding factor in this game may end up being the Sounders' ability to finally break through on offense.
Earlier in the week, Sounders assistant Ezra Hendrickson was speaking about the new formation. Although his comments weren't directly aimed at the Galaxy game, they seem as appropriate as any.
"You have to be able to produce from the attack that will be generated," he said. "If you let those three guys (the forwards) go and still don't get any production, it doesn't matter what those four guys in back do. It's predicated on not just how well they produce opportunities, but how well they execute."