While the final scoreline may have been a little unfortunate, the Seattle Sounders went into the Stubhub Center with a clear and focused defensive tactical gameplan. While it may not have been their most flawless execution, given that LA walked out with a 1-0 win, it was more then enough to contain a potent LA Galaxy attack for most of the game.
LA focused their attack on the Seattle wings, dominating the field of play
Matching the Sounders defensive plan, LA came into this match with a clear cut offensive plan for trying to break down the Seattle defense. Without the services of Osvaldo Alonso, the Sounders central midfield partnership of Michael Azira and Gonzalo Pineda was automatically forced into a more conservative role. Neither Pineda nor Azira have the recovery speed or ball winning tenacity of Alonso, so with a potent force of Keane and Zardes attempting to exploit space in the Seattle midfield they were forced to remain at home from the opening exchanges of the match.
After pinning back the central midfield, LA went to work trying to stretch the field of play, aiming to again expose holes in the Sounders lines. On the left Landon Donovan played extremely wide attempting to open lanes for near posts runs drawing out Chad Marshall. It was an ultimately futile move as Marshall proved extremely adept at reading and closing the those channels that were opened.
On the opposite side of the field, the LA were running rampant as Stefan Ishizaki and and AJ DeLaGarza specifically targeted the Sounders biggest defensive weakness: Marco Pappa. While Marco Pappa is a far better defender then many give him credit for, the Guatemalan international is best when pressing high up the field or when moving in as a secondary presser. In this match, Ishizaki and DeLaGarza engaged in an extremely effective fullback overlap. This overlap had a major effect on the Sounders that radiated throughout the match.
First, it forced both banks of the Sounders defense into retreating deep into their half of the field. With both Keane and Zardes in the middle, denying them open space became the name of the game for the Sounders. Denied those outlets and connections in the middle, the LA offense resorted to pumping in cross after cross. In the full 90 minutes, LA sent in 31 crosses, 16 from Stefan Ishizaki alone and 21 from the right side of the field. That Gonzalez, Scott, and Marshall combined for a total of 23 clearances should come as no surprise
The second effect, a direct cause from the first, was the isolation of Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins from the rest of the Sounders team. This curtailed the Sounders ability in transition play for much of the first hald. While their individual brilliance was enough to generate some quality chances during the first half, the inability to bring secondary attackers into the fold went a long way toward stymying the Sounders attack.
With their ability in transition weakened, the Sounders were reliant on build-up play for their attacking gains. However, LA's choice of using DeLagarza on the right against Marco Pappa allowed LA to smother the Sounders attack. DeLaGarza would frequently compact into what was effectively a three-man backline in defense as Robbie Rogers pushed forward into the midfield. With Marco Pappa's predilection for drifting inside this maneuver actually cost the Galaxy nothing in defense. This allowed LA was able to maintain numerical superiority on the backline, while Sarvas and Juninho kept the middle structured, blocking linkup play between Pineda and the strikers. Meanwhile Robbie Rogers had free reign to pressure any Sounders attack from Yedlin or Evans while Ishizaki's pace on the right left the Sounders with little offensive impetus on the left as well.
Bruce and Sigi match up with a set of substitutions and Sarvas' injury frees up Pineda
With both sides at a relative stalemate (goal not withstanding), Sigi Schmid mixed up his attacking options with the more direct Chad Barrett on for Marco Pappa. It was the exact opposite of the substitution Schmid made in both legs of the regular season, where Schmid opted to bring in another midfield option to free up the man marked Dempsey. With the injury to AJ DeLaGarza, Bruce Arena brought in the faster Dan Gargan. The net effect was to stretch the Galaxy backline forcing Sarvas and Juninho into paying more attention to both Dempsey and Martins. However, it wasn't until Marcelo Sarvas went off injured that the game truly opened up.
The loss of Sarvas was a huge blow to LA, allowing Pineda more time and space in midfield. With that increased time and space, Pineda was able to find and accurately pinpoint Martins and Dempsey in transition for the Sounders. That freedom showed up immediately as Pineda attempted as many passes in the final 30 minutes as he attempted in the entire previous 60. Suddenly Martins and Dempsey were dangerous in both transition and in possession. However, without much of an effective attacking tandem besides Dempsey and Martins the Sounders were unable to breakdown LA in front of goal. It wasn't until Sigi Schmid added Andy Rose into the mix that they started to see serious gains. The Australian midfielder was a dynamic late runner for the final 10 minutes in addition to being a defensively solid presence in the middle.
With a fantastic defensive performance, the Sounders have secured a solid position as they come back to Seattle for the second leg of the tie next Sunday. Missing Osvaldo Alonso was a massive loss for the Sounders while further missing Lamar Neagle left the Sounders without one of the biggest change of pace options. Despite those setbacks, only being down a goal going into a second leg where LA may be missing their own midfield talisman in Marcelo Sarvas, is good footing for the Sounders.