Like a hapless protagonist in a horror movie, no matter how fast the Sounders ran through the dark woods of the MLS season they could not escape the somersaulting, finger-gunning Galaxy creature lurching at them from behind. For weeks they ran, and they kept just a step ahead until they were within sight of the warm light of the cabin or castle or whatever meant safety and a Supporters' Shield. And then it happened. Inevitably, our hero tripped over a suspiciously V-shaped root. Ankle twisted. The Galaxy creature's hot breath swirling. Doom coming.
That is, until Fabian Castillo burst through the underbrush and kicked it in the head. Crisis averted.
Now we go into the finale series — the series that we've known for a long time now would decide the Shield and the No. 1 seed. The only question was how desperately we would enter it. Could we cobble together a 3-point lead and go in needing only a point from two games? Would we go in trailing and needing 4 — meaning we'd have to force at least a draw in Carson and then win at home? Thanks to Texan heroism, we're in the middle and the Sounders very much control their destiny. Two points will do it. Manage a draw away and a home draw gets it done. Even an away loss can be overcome by a home win. And an away win? Then the Shield is in the bag and next week is just a party with 60,000 of your closest friends.
Unfortunately, the opponent is formidable. This Galaxy team is one of the best regular season teams in the history of the league. Their goal differential is 34. That would be the highest GD in the post-shootout era — eclipsing the Earthquakes' +29 in 2012. Thirty of that 34 has been earned at home, and a Seattle team that's had trouble keeping shutouts is unlikely to find one against an attack that includes likely MVP Robbie Keane, HGP comet Gyasi Zardes, and Literal American Superhero and Savior of American Soccer Landon Donovan. Add in minutes from newly added aerial threat Alan Gordon and they're a handful.
|Landon Donovan||Did you know we would have beaten Belgium 8-0 if he'd started? Deal with it.|
|Robbie Keane||Steven Lenhart with talent|
|Marcelo Sarvas||The spine of the midfield. If he has a good day Seattle's hydra will have very little room to attack.|
That attacking group is given free rein thanks to the extremely effective midfield foundation built by the two Brazilians — Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas. Both are two-way players who can tackle, maintain possession with quick passes, and navigate through-balls to create chances. Sarvas in particular is a midfield hardbody and he will be the primary enforcer trying to shut down Obafemi Martins' and Clint Dempsey's attacks through the middle.
Behind them is a pairing of national team regular Omar Gonzalez and the underrated AJ DeLaGarza. Beating Omar in the air with Seattle's attackers is a fool's game and I would expect any high crosses in the run of play to be wasted efforts.
LA doesn't have a lot of weaknesses, but their fullbacks might be one of them. Dan Gargan on the right is a physical presence, but not a particularly fast or technical one. On the left they're playing Robbie Rogers, who's been moved back after struggling to get playing time on the wing. He's still an unconvincing defender and his zone will be attacked by DeAndre Yedlin and Seattle's right midfielder (which is likely to alternate between Lamar Neagle and Marco Pappa). Overloading that area will force DeLaGarza and likely one of the central midfielders wide, which can create space for the Sounders' attack through the middle (especially if they can keep the crosses low and hard).
Seattle's greatest advantage is that they have two chances at this. Winning the first is a tough ask, especially with Seattle's recent road form against good teams. But if nothing else it's a scouting expedition to find mismatches and weaknesses for a home match in front of a full stadium, where — regardless of what happens this weekend — a win will secure the Supporters' Shield.