Let’s be clear.
The result Tuesday in the much-hyped first match of Major League Soccer is not going to define anybody’s season.
Yes. The Sounders want to play well because it’s the opening game of the season, and Qwest Field will be throbbing with an expected sellout of 36,000 fans and a nationally televised audience.
Yes. The Sounders want to play well because it’s three points.
It’s the first game of a long season — 34 MLS matches to be exact. And that doesn’t include up to six U.S. Open Cup matches, six CONCACAF Champions League first-round matches and one mystery friendly that rumors suggest will be against Manchester United but neither side is willing to confirm yet.
“Whoever walks off the field on Tuesday night a loser their season is not over and whoever walks off the field the winner their season is not secure and done either,” Coach Sigi Schmid said. “Its one of those things where I think there is a lot of hype around the game and deservedly so because these are two good teams, and this is going to be an electric atmosphere.
Still, the Sounders have no intention of losing, according to the coach and players. They have won both home openers in their short MLS history. More importantly — it is the Galaxy, after all, and it is a Galaxy team that manhandled them in the regular season and then spit them out of the first round of the playoffs.
“Theres a lot at stake because obviously they are the team that knocked us out of the playoffs, so we want to come out and we want to play well for that reason,” Schmid said.
Indeed. For the Sounders, all roads to glory probably lead to and then right through LaLa Land. To ultimately declare their third season meaningful, the Sounders will have to slay this Southern California demon.
But it won’t be easy. This version of the Galaxy — the 2011 model — has been designed for one purpose and one purpose only — win the MLS Cup. We are clearly driven to win a championship this year, Coach Bruce Arena said, on his club’s website recently. No question about it.
This is David Beckham’s final year of his multi-million dollar contract — and that’s clearly fueling some of the urgency. The team also is full of other aging American players — many who played for the U.S. National Team — and so time is waiting for none of them. Finally, America’s best player — Landon Donovan — may also be following Beckham to England, or Europe, next year.
It’s now or never for the Galaxy. And Arena has assembled a balanced team of veterans, young role players and several superstars. The most recent in the latter category — Colombian marksman Juan Pablo Angel. He had captained the New York Red Bulls last year and had been its leading scorer and did the same for Aston Villa in the English Premier League.
Beyond those obvious stars, the Galaxy have silky and stylish Brazilian midfielder Juninho and forward Chad Barret — a proven and gutsy goal scorer. Then there are the young and talented American defenders — Omar Gonzalez, A.J. DeLaGarza and Sean Franklin supported by some cagey veterans with U.S. National team experience — Gregg Berhalter, Frankie Hejduk and Todd Dunivant.
True, the Galaxy lost Edson Buddle, their top goal scorer, to Europe. But they picked up Angel and Paolo Cardozo, a quick and energetic Uruguayan midfielder, who impressed at the MLS Player Combine.
Plus, the Galaxy bring attitude and swagger — something rare for MLS clubs. That comes with winning lots of games. Last year, Los Angeles won the Supporter’s Shield for having the best MLS record (18-7-5) and advanced to the Conference Championship before losing 3-0 to FC Dallas. In 2009, the Galaxy lost in the MLS Cup finals to Real Salt Lake in penalty kicks.
Not every team has the talent we have and our ability to win a championship every year,” Donovan said, on the club’s website. “So we want to take advantage of it.
The Galaxy have had their way with the Sounders. It leads the all-time MLS series 4-1-1 (2-1-1 regular season), including a 2-0-1 mark at Qwest Field. Seattle’s sole win came at the Home Depot Center (2-0) in 2009. Steve Zakuani has scored three times against the Galaxy.
So how does Seattle beat LA?
“Dont just let their players dictate the game,” said keeper and captain Kasey Keller. “Theyve got some good players — Landon. Beckham. Angel. You just cant let them get into a rhythm. Limit their chances and take advantage of yours.”
For defender James Riley, it’s all about being aware of their most dangerous players — for 90 minutes. Problem is, the Galaxy have a lot of lethal options.
“Angel is someone who is a fantastic finisher,” Riley said. ” You definitely have to have your hand on him anytime hes in the box, especially with Beckham, who can serve balls from anywhere.
“Barrett is proven goal scorer as well,” Riley continued. “He works his tail off. Gets into the box. Fights. Has pace. Then you have Donovan, who I think will be a bit more offensive this time. They definitely have a lot of weapons.”
For Seattle, the intriguing question will be up front — will Angel and Barrett play as two strikers, or will Angel go solo? Angel, 35, clearly has less speed and desire to chase balls into the corner than perhaps the younger Buddle. But he is a more technical finisher and deadly in the air.
“With the addition of Barrett, if Barretts the guy who plays next to him, Barrett does a lot of that stuff for him so it allows Angel to stay in the middle,” Schmid said. “We have a good idea of how they play as individuals. Whether they come and play a 4-4-2 or whether they play a 4-2-3-1 it really doesnt matter that much.
How do you beat LA?
Defender Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, who is expected to start after recovering from a torn ACL knee last season knows Los Angeles will be a difficult test. “But we just have to be strong,” he said, through an interpreter, “and we have to play our game of football, and we think it will be better than theirs.”