The Sounders finally won a playoff series, but they have questions to answer in defense as they get ready to take on the defending MLS Cup champions.
The LA Galaxy had to storm back on the road against the Supporters' Shield winners to get here. The Seattle Sounders had to gut out a physical, draining two legs against Salt Lake to extend their season. Now here the two teams stand, ready to square off in the Western Conference finals and there is only one question to be asked: "Who can still feel their legs?"
Both sides are running on fumes, but teams seem to find a little more in the tank the deeper they go in the playoffs. Still, that the first leg of the conference final will be the Galaxy's seventh match in 21 days and the Sounders are on just two days rest.
Seattle has a bigger problem at the back, though. Marc Burch has ben suspended three matches for using a homophobic slur in the Sounders' conference semifinal win, while Leo Gonzalez is still battling injury. If he cannot go then the Sounders will turn to Zach Scott, which would have the Galaxy salivating. As good as the Seattle defense was during the season, they will have a tough time stopping the Galaxy's explosive attack if Scott has to start, especially since this isn't a great match-up for them to begin with.
The Galaxy's varied attack and their ability to interchange will cause problems for Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Jeff Parke. Whether it is Robbie Keane looking for room underneath Edson Buddle then surging forward to beat the offside trap or Landon Donovan sitting below the Irishman, the movement of LA will be too much for the Seattle back line on its own.
In fairness, everything is too much for just the Sounders' back line, but nothing is too much for their defense thanks to Osvaldo Alonso, MLS's best defensive midfielder. His ability to drop deep and cut down any attack before it gets dangerous is second-to-none, and his tremendous passing to spring the transition game keeps opponents from putting too many men forward. With him cutting out the underneath striker, as well as the men cutting in, the Galaxy will have to turn to David Beckham and his long balls, diagonal plays and crosses, a fine idea in theory, but one that failed them miserably in their conference semifinal first leg loss to the Quakes.
Seattle has similar optimism in their attack, which goes up against a similarly injured defense, and also has questions about whether their "in theory" way forward can turn into actual production. While the Galaxy deal well with physical forwards, Fredy Montero's ability to play playmaker as much as striker and play anywhere in the attacking half is a problem waiting to happen and that is when A.J. DeLaGarza is in the team. He won't be on Sunday and instead will be replaced by Tommy Meyer, who played well against San Jose, but that was a very different attack that played to his strengths, which Seattle's doesn't.
The problem for the Sounders is how they can get Eddie Johnson involved. He's been exceptional at linking up with Mauro Rosales, but the Argentinean is a doubt for the match as he battles injury. Without him, and especially his ability to cut in and exploit space that Beckham could very well leave, Johnson will have more trouble finding the type of service he thrived on this season.
But for all the talk about forwards and defenders, it still comes back to Alonso and Juninho, the Galaxy's answer to the Sounders' midfield stalwart. Both will be asked to sit in front of the defense, but they will have opportunities to get forward. Whichever can without exposing their back line will be the extra man going forward, in space exposed by the other's defensive nature, that can make the difference. The battle is on in the middle.
It is the battle for the Western Conference. Two legs and one spot in MLS Cup is on the line. To the winner goes the shot at a title, and even more tired legs.