The Seattle Sounders close out the 2012 MLS regular season against the LA Galaxy this evening, and no matter what happens they'll be facing Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference semifinals; that much has been set in stone for more than a week. And clearly, both teams will put "leave this game as healthy as we entered it" near the very top of their list of objectives for the evening. But while the LA Galaxy have little to play for other than pride, the outcome of his game could have a significant impact on the way things shake out for the Sounders both this season and next.
A point would give Seattle second place in the west meaning Seattle would host the second leg of the semifinal, while a win would earn the Sounders third-place in the overall standings, meaning a place in the 2013-14 CONCACAF Champions League should either Sporting Kansas City or the San Jose Earthquakes make the MLS Cup final, as well as a much better chance of hosting the final themselves should they make it that far. While the playoffs clearly take precedence over anything else at the moment, there's a lot to be gained by the Sounders from taking three points from this game.
Given that the Galaxy have much less to play for, are battling more serious injury troubles and have to face the Vancouver Whitecaps in the play-in game mid-week, they're unlikely to start a lineup that's especially close to full strength. It would be little surprise if all three of David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan don't make Bruce Arena's first XI for this game, and even a reserve-heavy lineup similar to the one that defeated Metapan in El Salvador on Thursday wouldn't be too much of a shock. But there's no way of knowing for sure how strong of a team the Galaxy will field until the lineups are announced, meaning that Sigi Schmid will only be guessing when he picks his own team before kickoff.
With the above in mind, it's reasonable to expect the Sounders to start a team that's close to full strength, but with certain key players omitted; Leo Gonzalez and Patrick Ianni have both been participating in full training this week, but with both recovering from recent injuries it's very unlikely that they will play. Mauro Rosales is easily the most fragile of Seattle's attacking core and his presence was dearly missed in last season's playoff loss to Real Salt Lake, so it would be little surprise to see him left out of the lineup. With that being said, there's a case to be made that the risk of injury to Rosales or any other of the Sounders key midfield and attacking players is remote enough that it's offset by the need to see this team continue becoming more comfortable as a unit and to build off of the positive momentum that's been gathering as of late. It's certainly a more complex situation than to think that there's one right and wrong approach, and there's no one better suited to make the decisions on this matter than the team's head coach.
No matter what happens, the Sounders have looked very good in recent weeks and have shown themselves capable of competing with every team in the league. Despite losing all three regular-season games against the Earthquakes each could have easily swung the other way, and no other side in the league has made the case that they should be clear favorites over Seattle in home-and-home series. This is a very good team that seems to be hitting its stride, and they have as good a chance to win the cup as anyone else in the league. But there are some very compelling reasons to treat this game as something only slightly better than a nuisance, and it will be interesting (and potentially telling) to see how the players respond.