CARSON, Calif. -- With his team trailing 1-0 to the L.A. Galaxy in the first leg of the Western Conference finals, the halftime message from Seattle Sounders manager Sigi Schmid was simple: "We said 1-0 is OK. If we walk away 1-0, we're alright."
But rather than take a manageable deficit into the second leg, the Sounders couldn't help themselves. The team crept forward, spaces began to appear in transition, and the Galaxy went on to bury Seattle 3-0 thanks to two goals from Robbie Keane and another from Mike Magee. Now the Galaxy are firmly in control of the series heading into next week’s return leg in Seattle.
This isn't to say that Seattle was reckless. Far from it. But once Keane bagged L.A.'s opener in first-half stoppage time, a subtle increase in risk, as well as fatigue, became apparent. And with L.A.'s attacking triumvirate of Keane, Magee and Landon Donovan all operating at warp speed, this proved borderline fatal.
"I think we sensed a little bit of blood in the water," said Galaxy defender Todd Dunivant. "Getting that goal right before half was huge. I think it deflated them a little bit. They were coming in with heavy legs. We certainly were too. But we sensed that at halftime that they were kind of dragging. We tried to pile on as much as we could in the second half."
That they did, and it could have been more. With three goals already on the scoreboard, Galaxy substitute Marcelo Sarvas forced an excellent save from Sounders goalkeeper Michael Gspurning. Seattle defender Jeff Parke cleared a Donovan effort off the line. Another L.A. sub, Michael Stephens, squandered a clear chance eight minutes from time when he shot wide after being set up by Keane.
The second leg will reveal if the Galaxy's inability to deliver a death blow will come back to haunt them, however head coach Bruce Arena didn't sound too concerned.
"You can’t have everything in life," he said.
But he also is well aware of how one year ago Seattle nearly overturned a three-goal deficit against Real Salt Lake only to fall just short. "We're not foolish enough to believe that this thing is over," he said. "The game in Seattle on Sunday is going to be real difficult and we'll have to have our team ready."
Both teams entered the match short of full strength, with several players banged up. But it was Seattle that felt the losses more acutely. Mauro Rosales didn't even make the 18-man roster due to a left hamstring strain, and the suspension of left back Marc Burch cut deep, especially with the team's other left back, Leo Gonzalez, out injured. And when Eddie Johnson was deemed unable to start due to a persistent left adductor injury, Schmid was forced to patch together a lineup from a position of weakness. Christian Tiffert was drafted in as an attacking midfielder behind lone striker Fredy Montero, while Zach Scott played as an emergency left back.
"What we wanted to do was congest the midfield a little bit, and make it a little more difficult, and possess the ball more," Schmid said. "Again, when you look at the stats, and you look at our possession, even in the first half we did a good job. It went exactly [how] I wanted. We were one minute away from having it go the way we wanted it to go."
All true, but Montero was often isolated up top, and struggled mightily to connect with his teammates. In attack, L.A. consistently went at Scott's side, and there was steady erosion in Seattle’s ability to defend the flanks. And it was no accident that the breakthrough finally came from that side of the field. Sean Franklin’s cross was dummied by Christian Wilhelmsson to Donovan, who after evading Parke, delivered a deft cross that Keane headed home at the back post.
At which point, Schmid made his aforementioned pleas for his side to ignore the scoreline and try to get out of the Home Depot Center trailing by just one.
"I think we pushed a little bit when we shouldn't have pushed to try to get the goal back because getting the goal back wasn't important," Schmid said. "[Losing] 1-0 was fine."
A flowing move in the 64th minute ended with Magee slotting home Franklin's low cross, and Keane completed the scoring three minutes later by tapping home Wilhelmsson's shot just as it was about to cross the line. It was a performance that Arena deemed more complete than last Wednesday’s 3-1 win over San Jose.
"It was one of those nights where every player was on form," Arena said. "They did an outstanding job."
Now Schmid has to try and rally his side ahead of the second leg. The Seattle manager said that with a full week off between matches, he expects Eddie Johnson to be on from the start. Rosales is expected to return, as well. But a bigger worry is the form of Montero. His goalless streak in the postseason has now hit 757 minutes, and while he'll surely benefit from having Johnson by his side, there's concern that his struggles in the postseason are down to a mental block.
When that question was posed to Schmid, he said, "Hopefully not. [Montero's] pretty good that way. But I’m sure at some point you start thinking about it."
Given the form of Magee and Keane, who now have seven goals between them in the playoffs, Arena isn't worried about his team's scoring, nor is he concerned about any complacency. However, his side's health is another issue. Both Juninho and Donovan had to be subbed out with injuries, the former with an undisclosed knock and the latter suffering from a hamstring strain.
When asked about the severity of the injury, Donovan said "We'll see," although he added he removed himself from the game as a precaution.
But even if Donovan is unable to go, a three-goal lead would appear to be safe. Of course, the Galaxy once famously squandered a four-goal advantage against San Jose back in 2003, but given the way L.A. is defending at the moment, it's difficult to see a way back for Seattle. Not that Schmid is giving up by any means.
"We take solace in the fact that we beat L.A. earlier in the year 4-0 at our place," he said. "We know we have to come out with the same sort of effort that we came out when we played at home last year, and we’ve got to come out with a better result."
Otherwise, it will be another MLS Cup final appearance for the Galaxy.