From the opening exchanges, it was clear that Sigi Schmid and Bruce Arena were going to give us a good old fashioned slugfest of a game on Sunday. The number of fouls both teams set about inflicting on each other and the number of yellow cards handed out in this match bears witness to that fact. However, more then just the foul and card counts, the game was also a tactical slugfest as both managers opted to spend the entire first half punching away at their oppositions.
The first 45, in which conservative is the operative word
Both managers opted to line up in their preferred formations - the Sounders in their now familiar 4-4-1-1 and LA in their dynamic 4-4-2. On the left side of attack Landon Donovan paired up with Robbie Rogers as has been the vogue while Sigi Schmid opted for the more conservative pairing of Brad Evans and DeAndre Yedlin. For much of the first half these two partnerships pounded away to almost zero avail as the the Sounders' aggressive young fullback played one of the most conservative games he's ever had for the Sounders.
Normally content to overlap with abandon,Yedlin was far more cautious in this match. Only on select, rare occasions did Yedlin overlap with Evans and that was exclusively in situations where Evans was in a position to drop back toward the defensive line of the Sounders. Yedlin spent most of the first half yielding space, keeping both Donovan and Rogers in front of him. It was a conservative strategy and it paid big dividends.
Stifled on the left with both Evans and Yedlin defending, Donovan and Robbie Keane were unable to bring their ability to interchange and open space into play - even adding in Gyazi Zardes was ineffective. This took Donovan out of the first half for long spells of play and forced LA into going a more traditional route with their attacks. With the LA attacking play also stifled through the center by Chad Marshall's ability to read the through ball, (and turn Robbie Keane into an incarnation of uselessness) LA spent much of the first half resorting to ineffective crosses in an attempt to break the Sounders defensive shape.
However, it was the left side of the field where the real battle was going on. With the speed of Lamar Neagle matched up against the much slower Dan Gargan, the Sounders opted to push the attack down the left with Neagle slotting inside and opening space for Leo Gonzalez to play as the attacking fullback during the first half. With Baggio Husidic's predilection to move inside, this gave the Costa Rican left back ample space and room to be an important piece of the Sounders attack. Meanwhile, the ability for Neagle to recover at speed helped to contain the much slower Gargan and mitigated much of the risk of Schmid's strategy.
With both sides effectively gummed up, this left the brunt of the attacking to the center of the pitch, where Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey's skill gave the Sounders ample opportunities, but few great chances.
After 45 minutes, neither side had found the tactical breakthrough they needed (although LA did find a horrible clearance from Brad Evans to their liking) and both Schmid and Arena opted to alter things drastically in the second half.
Bruce Arena opts to go 4-3-3 to devastating effect
Remember the first 5 minutes of the second half being pleasant? I want to live in that fantasy world. Right out of the gate, the Galaxy switched it up. They dropped Landon Donovan into the center of midfield, sitting on top of Marcelo Sarvas and Juninho, shifting Robbie Keane wide left and bringing Baggio Husidic up to man the right side of attack. It was an inspired decision from Arena as LA were everywhere for the first five minutes and the-until-that-point-virtually-silent Robbie Keane suddenly became a very dangerous pawn.
On the opposite side, Sigi Schmid shifted the focus of his attacking fullbacks. With Leo Gonzalez on the wrong side of 30 (i. e. it's not an optional strategy to just attack on the left ad nauseam for 90 minutes) so Schmid came out in the second half pushing Yedlin and restraining Gonzalez, alternating the focus of the Sounders attack. With the Galaxy's switch the the 4-3-3, this gave Robbie Keane some of the much-needed room to maneuver and was partially one of the reasons why the Galaxy were so dominant to start.
That it took the Galaxy five minutes to double their advantage was not surprising. At that point, with a two-goal advantage, the game was firmly in LA's control and they opted to shift back into the more defensive 4-4-2 posture. It was another rough 15 minutes before Seattle found their answer.
Marco Pappa changes everything
When Marco Pappa came in for Brad Evans in the 65th minute, it came with a whole scale change for the Seattle Sounders as Lamar Neagle shifted to the right side of midfield and Pappa slotted in on the left. However, rather then hugging the touchline, or coming in as an inverted winger, Sigi Schmid brought him much farther inside acting as a CAM combining with Gonzalo Pineda in midfield.
With Neagle and Yedlin on the right, the two immediately began to push the Galaxy defense, as Neagle cut inside exposing large amounts of space on the right for Yedlin to exploit. With the Galaxy having dropped into a defensive posture, this forced Donovan into a much more defensive role on the left of midfield that visibly deflated the attacking midfielder as he suddenly found himself running up and down the right touchline responding to the Sounders aggressive advances. One moment of allowing too much space, a Yedlin cross, and the Sounders were back with one goal.
From there on out, it was all Hydra as Marco Pappa tucking inside gave Dempsey or Martins the ability to play wide on the left, interchanging continuously and causing fits for the LA backline and defensive midfielders. This opened holes for both Pappa and Pineda to play aggressive through balls between the Galaxy lines to Dempsey and Martins. Coupled with Yedlin and Neagle on the right and LA had zero answer for a Sounders team that absorbed pressure and hit fast on the transition for 25 minutes straight.
The Sounders scored both their goals within just six minutes of Marco Pappa coming onto the field, but that was far from the only effect, as the Sounders attack continued unabated for the remainder of the match. Another dangerous attack in transition was the direct cause of the second yellow card to LA's Omar Gonzales which is sure to have massive ramifications for Saturday's clash.
While the immediate impact of the shift to the 4-3-3 from Bruce Arena was a very worrying few minutes, it's comforting to see the Sounders make a single tactical shift and so aggressively eviscerate the LA Galaxy. That's long been a problem for the Sounders in matchups against Bruce Arena, but it's nice to know Sig Schmid has the toolbag of players to make it work this year (especially after that nightmare back in July).
With a back-to-back series, it will be extremely interesting to see what new tricks each of these managers come up with for Saturday. However, if each is out of ideas for the others, you have to like the Seattle Sounders chances given how thoroughly they dismantled this LA side for the final 25 minutes.