The Seattle Sounders had their best regular season in their history in 2011, finishing second in the Western Conference and the league on points. Coming into their conference semifinal against Real Salt Lake, they were favorites. Most expected them to get a solid result at Rio Tinto Stadium, then win at home in two very close matches. The two legs were anything but close.
In the first leg, Seattle central midfielder Osvaldo Alonso was poor. Mauro Rosales and Fredy Montero created most of Seattle's attacking output in 2011, but Alonso was just as important to their cause. His work in the center of midfield has been crucial for Seattle for all three of their seasons in MLS, and at Rio Tinto Stadium, he was considerably outplayed by Javier Morales. With RSL's playmaker healthy and Seattle's midfield destroyer off his game, RSL won easily, 3-0.
The second leg was an entirely different story. While Seattle didn't do enough to turn around the three goal deficit, they completely steamrolled RSL in a 2-0 win, and they were unlucky to only win by two goals. The biggest difference in the team between the two legs was the performance of Alonso, who was absolutely brilliant in the second leg. He completely erased Javier Morales from the game, and RSL couldn't create any possession in their opponents' half.
A similar phenomenon occurred in the other Western Conference semifinal, thanks to the suspension of Juninho. In the first leg of the Los Angeles Galaxy's series against the New York Red Bulls, he was arguably LA's best player, limiting Thierry Henry's influence on the game. Because of Juninho's work rate and positioning, central midfielders Teemu Tainio and Rafael Marquez seemed unsure about where they should go with the ball. New York was shut out, deservedly.
At the end of that game, a fight broke out that resulted in Juninho's suspension for the second leg. Chris Birchall is a competent player, but the gap in class between him and Juninho was instantly apparent. In the 4th minute of the second leg, Thierry Henry dropped deep to pick up the ball and no one closed him down. He played a brilliant through ball to Luke Rodgers, who finished to level the aggregate score. The goal probably wouldn't have happened if Juninho was on the pitch.
The LA Galaxy is a team most noted for the amount of money they spend on players. Thanks to the large salaries of David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, they're paying out more in salaries than anyone in the league, including the free-spending New York Red Bulls. However, the salary cap still limits what they can do, and coach Bruce Arena takes a pragmatic - and some might even call it negative - approach. For all of their spending, the Galaxy still start players like Chad Barrett and Mike Magee. They lack a striker who can create for his teammates and himself. AJ DeLaGarza is hardly an elite central defender, and the team has played with makeshift right backs when Sean Franklin has been injured or moved to right midfield. They don't exactly play beautiful football, mostly because they don't have a beautiful football kind of roster.
The Galaxy play on the break, capitalize on set piece opportunities, and keep clean sheets despite the fact that they're often playing a couple of very average players, even by MLS standards, in their back line. One of their central midfielders is David Beckham, a 37-year-old man with limited pace, minimal defensive qualities, and a bad back. So much of their strategy is centered around Juninho and what he provides in the center of midfield. He's a good enough athlete to get forward when needed, he's a good enough passer to start counter attacks from deep positions, and he regularly erases opposing attacking midfielders from the game.
If Real Salt Lake's performances over their two legs against Seattle are any indication, that latter quality needs to come out on Sunday. When Javier Morales has time and space to operate, Real Salt Lake can keep the ball in their opponent's half for long stretches of time, and he can also provide a link between defending players and the strikers when RSL chooses to play on the counter. He was his team's most important player in their run to the MLS Cup in 2009 and the CONCACAF Champions League final back in the spring. It's not the least bit surprising that RSL went from being the best team in MLS by some clear distance to the third or fourth best in the league when he was out injured.
Morales is one of the best in MLS, but even when 100 percent fit, he is not unstoppable. Daniel Hernandez showed that in the playoffs in 2010, Walter Ayovi provided further evidence in the CONCACAF Champions League final, and Osvaldo Alonso repeated the feat of those two men and contained him in RSL's last game. Juninho is in the class of Hernandez, Ayovi and Alonso when he is at his best, and he will need to be exactly that on Sunday.
For more on the two teams, visit LA Galaxy blog LAG Confidential and Real Salt Lake blog RSL Soapbox. We'll have more in the build-up to the Western Conference Final, including live coverage, in our Galaxy vs. RSL StoryStream. For more on the MLS Cup Playoffs and the entire world of soccer, visit SB Nation Soccer.