SEATTLE, WA - MAY 02: Eddie Johnson #7 of the Seattle Sounders dribbles against David Junior Lopes #3 of the Los Angeles Galaxy at CenturyLink Field on May 2, 2012 in Seattle, Washington. The Sounders defeated the Galaxy 2-0. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Two clubs expected to challenge for the Supporters Shield nearly saw their season derailed by injuries and long stretches of under-performance. With both seemingly having put the worst behind them, Sunday's clash between the Galaxy and the Sounders could go a long way towards determining which side's early season struggles will have the biggest impact on postseason positioning.
The last time the LA Galaxy visited Seattle, the Sounders dispatched them with ease as they continued on with the best start in team history. The Galaxy were struggling mightily, near the bottom of the Western Conference standings, their era of dominance appearing to have come to an end. Just ten days later, the Sounders lost at home to Real Salt Lake and didn't win another game in MLS for another two months. Meanwhile, in LA, the Galaxy would start to get healthy and shortly thereafter, they'd start to look something like their old selves. Now, coming into this game, the Sounders are unbeaten in MLS in over a month and the Galaxy have rocketed up the standings with as good a run of form as you're likely to see all year.
That's not to say things are back to where they were expected to be at the beginning of the season; though their performances over the past month have been a significant improvement over the mid-season slump, it's still apparent that the team is often underplaying its potential. And despite the Galaxy's scorching form in July, they still are only in fifth place in the Western Conference, good enough for the last playoff spot. As it stands the Galaxy would be forced to win an opening round playoff game, while the Sounders would once again be forced to face off against Real Salt Lake-this time without the benefit of home field advantage in the playoff's second leg. Another slip could see Seattle drop out of the top three and into a place that would require them to participate in the single-elimination opening playoff round.
For both sides, preseason hopes of a Supporters Shield run have taken a back seat to hopes of avoiding a torturous path to the MLS Cup. And with things as tight as they are at the back end of the Western Conference playoff race, this game could have a huge impact in the way things look come November. Seattle has two games in hand over LA and will have another crack at the Galaxy when they travel to the Home Depot Center for the season's final game, but a win in this game would give the Sounders some much-needed breathing room. By the same token, the Galaxy would leapfrog both Vancouver and Seattle by picking up three points, and putting their disastrous start to find themselves in a position to avoid the play-in round of the playoffs would be a major boost heading into the last ten games of the season.
In addition to their strong form, the Galaxy have one other significant advantage heading into this game; Seattle is currently in the middle of the biggest stretch of their season, with Sunday's crucial match followed on Wednesday by the US Open Cup final in Kansas City and a date with the league-leading San Jose Earthquakes looming large on Saturday. Seattle has three games in the space of six days that could all go a long way towards defining their season; wins against both LA and San Jose would bring the Sounders to within four points of the Earthquakes, while the importance of winning a fourth consecutive US Open Cup likely can't be overstated. And once this current four-games-in-nine-days gauntlet has completed, Seattle will get a week off before hosting the Vancouver Whitecaps, who currently sit directly behind them in the standings.
The importance of this game certainly won't be lost on the team, but actually winning the game is quite another matter. And as is the case with most teams, defensive organization is going to be key to accomplishing that goal. When the Sounders have struggled, a lack of discipline at the back has more often than not been one of the biggest contributing factors; Seattle's defense has looked to be among the league's best for long stretches of the season, but at other times it's looked a complete shambles. The Sounders have shown a particular weakness to defending the counter -which likely won't be much surprise to those that have been watching the team from the beginning- and against a team that features Landon Donovan on the wing and David Beckham's right foot in the middle. The Sounders have also had issues closing down players outside of the box, allowing a frustrating number of long-range goals and the poaching that often accompanies deflected long range attempts at goal. With Robbie Keane in the Galaxy side, there's ample threat of both. The Galaxy's three Designated Players are just too good to be neutralized if they're on their game, but they can be impeded; quite simply, Seattle must force LA to beat them rather than the Sounders doing the damage to themselves.
From an attacking standpoint, the Galaxy defense is significantly better than it was prior to the return of Omar Gonzalez, but it's far from the elite unit that allowed just 28 goals in 2011. Seattle has the attacking firepower to break them down, but it will need a big game from at least one of Fredy Montero and Mauro Rosales. Montero has cooled noticeably in recent weeks, while Rosales has been inconsistent all season. Montero was tremendous in mid-week against Caledonia, but that quality needs to return to MLS play if he hopes for 2012 to show marked improvement over 2011. Rosales has battled against injury and the poor form that often accompanies recovery all season, and though he's been much better over the past month he's still not back to consistently being the player he was last year. If the Sounders are going to fully turn things around and make a deep run into the playoffs, they need their captain to find his stride once again.
There's a tremendous amount riding on this game, and coming as it does in the middle of such a crucial string of games it could set the tone for the remainder of the season. The Sounders are talented enough to be the best team in the league, and at times this season they've shown it. But they haven't done it nearly often enough. Thankfully, there's still plenty of time left to find a winning rhythm that can carry them down the stretch and into the playoffs at their best. But if they can't find it for this game, the window to do so will become just that much smaller.