The Sounders travel to the Home Depot Center in Carson, California to take on Los Angeles Galaxy in what is arguably Seattle's biggest game to this point in the season. Jjust four points seperate LA and the Sounders, and though FC Dallas lead the league in terms of points per match (with the Galaxy second and Real Salt Lake not far behind) the Seattle would force their way into the thick of what is shaping up to be a tight race with a win on Monday night. Conversely, a loss makes the already tough task of winning the Supporters Shield look a major longshot, as the Sounders would fall seven points back of the Galaxy and fail to pick up ground on an FC Dallas side that is already three points ahead with a game in hand. There's still far too much season to play for any result to put the Shield out of reach, but it is reasonable to say that the Sounders status as legitimate contedners will be much clearer after tomorrow night.
It's difficult to take many lessons the Galaxy's 1-0 victory over the Sounders on the opening night of the season; on the one hand, the Sounders are a much different team than they were that night, with Steve Zakuani and O'Brian White both starting and Sigi Schmid taking a far different tactical approach. Those losses hurt the Sounders immensely, but Seattle is most likely a more dangerous team now than they were then, owing to a different strategic approach and the steadily improving play of several key members of Seattle's attack. On the other hand, the Galaxy are quite clearly a better team as well, as a slow start had many questioning whether their window had closed earlier than expected. A quick glance at the table should dispel any lingering notions of the sort; things haven't necessarily gone the way they were expected to go, but Los Angeles are clearly one of the elite teams in MLS and their ability to stay on top of the standings while missing some key players due to the Gold Cup will attest to that.
Los Angeles has been unbeatable at home this season, and in the literal sense of the word; the Galaxy have four wins and four ties and a +8 goal differential in eight games at the HDC.
That's an impressive record, but it's not the whole story; Los Angeles have beaten just one genuinely good team at home, taking a 1-0 result from the Philadelphia Union on the strength of a set piece goal. The bulk of the Galaxy's positive goal differential came in a 3-0 win over the worst road team in the league in Portland and a 4-1 win over a Sporting Kansas City side that had yet to show that they were anywhere near capable of being competitive. Despite LA's 2.0 PPG average they've had some disappointing results at home, drawing 1-1 to Toronto FC and 0-0 to DC United. While there's no question that the Galaxy are a very good home team and have had some poor luck shift results out of their favor, they're far from an unconquerable juggernaut and it's hard to see them making it through the entire season without a loss in Carson.
On the opposite side of things, the Sounders have been a solid team away from CenturyLink, picking up impressive wins against Real Salt Lake and as a shorthanded side against Toronto FC. Seattle's last road loss came at the hands of DC United exactly two months prior to Monday's contest and their only other loss away from home was in the season's second game against the New York Red Bulls. Seattle are averaging 1.44 PPG on the road, not the league's best but easily good enough to keep them competitive in the race for the Shield if it's sustained throughout the season.
While Seattle does tend to play slightly more defensively on the road, their lack of speeed in the attack makes a true bunker-and-counter impractical; at times Sigi Schmid has favored a stifling diamond 4-4-2 formation, placing the emphasis on controlling the midfield and making every possession count while leaving the defense protected and cutting down on the Sounders vulnerability to counter attacks. It wouldn't be at all a surprise to see the Sounders take that sort of approach in this match due to the Galaxy's myriad attacking threats, but Seattle has loooked to solid in their past three matches in an attacking 4-2-3-1 (even shorthanded against the New England Revolution) that it's hard to see Schmid choosing to mix things up too drastically, at least at the start.
Aside from Zakuani and White's long term injuries, Seattle comes into this one mostly healthy and it will be interesting to see whether Schmid gives the nod to the returning Brad Evans after some very solid performances from Erik Friberg in his absence. Los Angeles isn't quite so lucky. David Beckham is likely to miss this game due to back spasms, though depending on who you're asking that might not be the worst thing for the Galaxy. The bigger story is of course goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts' broken arm and the red card suspension being served by Josh Saunders, forcing the Galaxy to start third string keeper Brian Perk. Entering the season the Galaxy's goalkeeping depth was the envy of much of the league, Ricketts being one of the best in the business and Saunders perfectly capable of starting for most teams in MLS. If ever any proof that things can change dramatically for a team over the course of one game, Perk's appearance between the sticks tomorrow evening should be proof of that.
That's a nice advantage for the Sounders, but the outcome of this game is far more likely to be determined by the 20 outfield players than either of the two in net. And in truth, the Galaxy's 10 are likely a bit better than the Sounders 10. But not dramatically so. These are two good teams, one an unquestioned member of the elite class of MLS and the other just on periphery. Seattle could go a long way towards changing that with a win tomorrow night. It might require a few above-average performances and a bit of luck, but this is certainly a winnable game for Seattle and to grab an unexpected positive result ahead of the open of the transfer window would be a massive boost for the Sounders. This team has shown that they're capable of putting in a run of performances as strong as any team in the league; tomorrow night, we'll begin to find out whether it can be sustained.