You can debate whether it’s the best matchup of the conference semifinals, but the Los Angeles-Seattle clash that begins at Qwest Field Sunday night is the one I’m most looking forward to seeing.
You’ve got the two best fan bases in the league (there are a couple of other good ones, but check the attendance figures). You’ve got two fairly legendary coaches, at least as legendary as one can be in a league that’s less than 20 years old. You’ve got the best player in the league in Landon Donovan. You’ve probably got the most attacking talent in MLS on Seattle. You’ve got about half the people picking Seattle and the other half picking Los Angeles.
And you’ve got David Beckham. But how will it play out? I’ll try to guess:
TALE OF THE TAPE
Los Angeles: 18-7-5, 59 pts. – 1st in Western Conference
Seattle: 14-10-6, 48 pts. – 4th in Western Conference
REGULAR SEASON MATCHUPS
Seattle 0-4 Los Angeles, May 8
Los Angeles 3-1 Seattle, July 4
KEY PLAYER (OBVIOUS)
Blaise Nkufo – The Swiss international was brought to Seattle for one reason, and that’s to win a series like this. It’s been a little bit of a struggle to adjust to MLS, and you always wonder at this time of the season – especially with a 35-year old that played in the World Cup – what kind of legs he’s going to have left. One curious stat: In his 11 league matches, Nkufo did not record a single assist, and the Sounders would love for him to find Fredy Montero or Steve Zakuani (10 goals each in regular season) to give Seattle a boost, especially in the first leg.
Landon Donovan – Let’s be honest, since he’s come back from the World Cup, he really hasn’t been at his best, where he’s able to dominate games, and the stats indicate that. Donovan’s assist against Dallas last week was his first in five games (he only has three in his last 13 matches), and he’s only scored once in his last 12 games.
Is he tired? It would certainly be understandable, going from Everton to the World Cup back to the Galaxy, but is it possible he’s been pacing himself for the playoffs? He’s looked a little better since Beckham has come on the scene, and looked quite fired up last week as Los Angeles wrapped up the Supporters’ Shield. Los Angeles will need him to produce something, especially if they find themselves behind heading into the second leg.
KEY PLAYER (NOT SO OBVIOUS)
Osvaldo Alonso – The attacking players get most of the press, but people that watch the Sounders week in and week out know how important the defensive midfielder is to Seattle’s success. Alonso left the first match between these two teams injured late in the first half, and Seattle proceeded to give up three goals in the second half and he didn’t return until after the second matchup, and his return coincided with the form that let Seattle qualify for the playoffs somewhat comfortably. Especially in the first leg, he’ll be in charge of stopping LA’s counterattacks, particularly some guy named Donovan, who does that thing quite well.
Omar Gonzalez – He got a lot of hype and has lived up to most of it, doing enough to get called in to the national team. But his form has not been quite as good of late. The Galaxy has only had one clean sheet in Gonzalez’s last 10 appearances, and their last home shutout was way back on May 15. Of course, Gonzalez won’t be alone in dealing with the sometimes potent Sounders attack, but the big man – who just turned 22 – will be the key to holding everything together in the back.
KEY PLAYER (SUBTLE)
Nathan Sturgis – He gets a lot of criticism from the MLS peanut gallery. Heck, he even gets some from Arlo White from time to time (by the way, when you say Sturgis’ name, you have to say it like Arlo does, it just sounds better), which is all but sacrilegious. But there are times where you can see why Sigi Schmid believes in him, he’s a great passer of the ball, and does lead the Sounders with seven assists in the regular season. Six of the seven have come in Seattle victories. He’s not a huge fan of physical play, but if Seattle can get him on the ball in a position to pick out the Zakuanis, Monteros, and Nyassis of the world, it could spell big trouble for the Galaxy.
Dema Kovalenko – I think Bruce Arena would favor Chris Birchall in the holding midfield (see: destroyer) role, but he loves him his veterans, and Kovalenko showed last weekend that – even at 33 – he can do a job for his club. Kovalenko will be in charge of blowing up the nice passing game Seattle wants to try to employ, especially in the first leg at Qwest Field. He won’t give you a heck of a lot of offense, but LA hopes it won’t need too much offense if they do things the right way at the back.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
Number of MLS appearances for David Beckham at Qwest Field in his career. I found this one hard to believe, but with injuries and loan spells, that’s just the way the schedule has fallen. While the atmosphere may intimidate many players, it may actually work to Beckham’s benefit, the big crowd should have him fired up and ready to produce. The artificial turf? I’m sure he’s not so fond of that, though.
To me, this is the best tactical matchup of the four. Does Arena decide to play defensively in the first leg and look the win the tie at home in the second leg? Or does he allow people like Juninho – one of his best creative players – to have a little freedom to make it an open game? On the other side, Schmid has some selection issues. Does he immediately go to Alvaro Fernandez, who has shown glimpses, but not consistency? Or does he have faith in Sanna Nyassi, who equally has shown glimpses, but has disappeared in other games.
As much as we hope for a beautiful 180 minutes of soccer, I think – in a two-legged tie – I’ll take Arena over Schmid. While both have been there before, Arena has always seemed to have his side picked correctly and ready to go for these types of affairs. It won’t be easy, Seattle will throw plenty at them, but Donovan, Edson Buddle, and Beckham are tough to bet against, even with all the flair on the other side.
Los Angeles 2-1 on aggregate – They survive the first leg unscathed and then take care of business at the Home Depot Center to advance to the Western Conference finals for the second straight season.