Going into the LA Galaxy match Seattle Sounders sit two points up with a game-in-hand on the reigning champions. Before the final whistle of the past weekend it was already clear that the two rivals would have significantly different lineups than the Western Conference Finals back in November. Gonzalo Pineda increased that difference and provides Sigi Schmid increased tactical influence on the match.
The best news is that Osvaldo Alonso is back and the rest of the XI is healthy. That means Coach Schmid's choice for the "other" central midfielder provides clear influence as to how he expects the match to be played.
In Micheal Azira, Schmid can create the emptiest of buckets with two natural defensive mids playing alongside one another. With Andy Rose, the Sounders would control the air game, including set-pieces. Schmid can also go with the inexperienced Cristian Roldan if the goal is getting forward a bit more often and creating penetration.
The Galaxy are a bit broken lately. They have a hole in their attack where a WF/CAM or even an effective CM would be. That's probably not going to change against Seattle, especially with Osvaldo Alonso filling that space defensively. This should help guide Sigi's decision-making process.
Azira offers the most defensive strength of Seattle's options to pair with Alsono. If LA didn't have that gaping hole in their attack it may make sense to play Azira for defensive reasons alone (like if they had Sarvas and Donovan, but they don't). Instead picking Azira should be done for what he brings in possession and attack.
His 82% passing is a decent rate and like last year, he's one of the better long passers on the squad. He completes three long balls a game (only Pineda is better at rate and completion of long passes among regular passers of long balls). So if Seattle wants to sit back and counter, Azira makes a lot of sense.
Rose is a strong ball winner in the air. He is third on the team among qualified players. Marshall is 3rd in the league (5.3 per game), Evans is 21st (3.5) and Andy Rose is 27th (3.3) among players with more than two appearances in the early season. This is a per game stat from WhoScored and so it must be noted that Rose only played 210 minutes (52.5 per match) while putting up that rate stat.
Since LA is strong in the air and defending set-pieces, playing Rose minimizes that strength. This season Rose's passing is down, though. He's completing only 69% of his pass attempts and most of those are short. But, he has more key passes per game and plays higher than Azira in general so is more likely to do so again. If the idea is to use a veteran who can help transition the ball from possession to attack Rose is an appropriate answer.
There isn't much in the way of data to look at for the 19-year-old, he just doesn't have the playing time. Instead one has to use the eye test from his time with the Huskies and limited play at the MLS level. With the Dawgs he was used throughout the spine and a tiny bit on the wing. As the Pac12 Freshman of the Year he was primarily deployed as a CAM and WF who created opportunities for others and finished his own. He dropped into deeper roles during his sophomore year and improved a bit defensively.
But defense is currently not his strength. Roldan looks to change games through his passing. He enjoys getting forward. His short passing game is probably most like Pineda, while his long passes are still developing proper vision. This is the riskiest choice, because it is rare for rookies to be tested in key contests, but Roldan's skill set is built to break through a CDM/CM system like the Galaxy currently run.
Sigi Schmid is not faced with simple choices. Pineda does not have a direct replacement (unlike Azira for Alonso early this season). He also may be exploring options that put two of these on the field if he benches Lamar Neagle. He could also insert Kovar for Neagle and still just go with one of Azira/Roldan/Rose.
Injury and red card replacements are the simplest ways that an MLS manager changes games. Against the strongest of rivals Sounders need points. Minor changes in the lineup will probably be the way Schmid takes or leaves those points on Sunday.