So often championship competition is resolved by strong defensive effort and one spectacular breakthrough.
Such was the case Sunday night at the Xbox Pitch of Qwest Field in the 2010 MLS Playoffs. Scoring ace Edson Buddle of the L.A. Galaxy took advantage of one long range opportunity, which proved to be the difference maker in a 1-0 triumph over the host Seattle Sounders before 35,521, marking the home team’s 32nd consecutive sellout and the second largest crowd ever for a conference semifinal.
The premier team of MLS soccer during the season’s first half was a red hot L.A. Galaxy. The club with second half momentum was the Seattle Sounders. So in what could be termed the MLS third season, meaning the playoffs, who would get hot?
The result on the Xbox Pitch Sunday night was scoring stalemate and this was anything but a surprise to anyone familiar with the nuances of professional sports. Seattle’s Sigi Schmid and Los Angeles mentor Bruce Arena are two bona fide legends, so accomplished that each stands in the rarified orbit of having won more than one MLS Cup during long and productive careers.
Couple the brilliance of two experienced coaches alongside the fact that they are both in the Western Conference and know each other’s tendencies exceptionally well and what is the expected likelihood of a playoff matchup?
The answer is a tight defensive struggle. The resolution of such a struggle often is one exceptional play. It often takes one brilliant effort to make the difference, a play destined to succeed beyond the most accomplished defensive effort.
Each team had opportunities during a strategically fascinating first half and only one found the net, resolving the tight defensive struggle and putting the road team one goal up in the first of the two week home-and-home series between the evenly matched teams. The second round will be Sunday, November 7 at 6 p.m. PT on the Galaxy’s pitch of Home Depot Center in Carson.
The Sounders had their breakthrough opportunity at the incredibly early 32-second mark of play. Galaxy goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts had just made a superb save of an Ozzie Alonzo scoring attempt.
The best of goalkeepers are rendered vulnerable on quick rebound efforts. Sounders midfielder Steve Zakuani received such an attempt and drilled his into the net before Ricketts had an opportunity to react.
The partisan crowd had only a moment to celebrate before the whole early goal experience was squelched. It was disallowed for offside.
The evening saw two of the premier and highly experienced goalkeepers of MLS soccer in superb form with Jamaican Ricketts and 40-year-old veteran Kasey Keller. At the seven-minute mark Keller showed his prowess with a brilliant save.
The save thwarted an effort by the number one name in world soccer seeking to move his club on top early. England’s David Beckham showed why during his halcyon Manchester United days the term in vogue was “Nobody can bend it like Beckham.”
A Beckham corner kick possessed the blend and swerve that enabled him once more to live up to his name as a specialist in such rare endeavor. The ball curved toward the net and an alert Keller was able to leap into the air and get a hand on it, enough for a timely save, as Sounders patrons heaved a collective sigh of relief.
In the 38th minute the evening’s decider was achieved. Buddle got his opportunity from 30 yards away. A less daring player would have passed the ball, but Buddle finished second in league scoring with 17 goals, one behind San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski, and without a time absence for World Cup competition might have won top honor.
Buddle delivered a shot that appeared to have eyes. It contained sufficient arc to elude the outstretched hands of a leaping Kasey Keller to land in the net for the only score of the contest.
The Sounders put consistent pressure on the Galaxy in the first half and it was here that the talented Ricketts saved the evening for L.A. with 7 first half saves and 8 for the match. Keller recorded 4 for Seattle. Overall the Sounders held a 15-10 edge in shots and an 8-5 advantage on goal.
In that Buddle’s long shot was the only score of the evening, post-game speculation abounded concerning it. Seattle defender Patrick Ianni called it a “wonder goal” while Keller, speaking like an accomplished veteran, supplied understanding and insight befitting someone who in a long soccer career has seen it all.
“It was just one of those things that guys try one hundred times in their careers and never make it happen,” Keller said. “Great goals change games and that’s part of it.”
Bruce Arena was delighted. The first leg of the two game competition was in a road setting known for being a tough place for visitors to win, given Seattle’s large and loudly cheering followers.
"Tough game, tough conditions,” Arena said. “This field wasn't easy to play on for either team. (This was a) pretty classic playoff game where you go on the road and defend and try to get out of here. We were playing to win. It certainly keeps the series really tight and there's everything to play for in the next game. "
Sigi Schmid sought to put the game in perspective for Seattle.
“I told my players that this is the first half of a 90-minute game,” he explained. “We play well on the road and we are one goal down at halftime.”
The Sounders need to make up the Galaxy one goal advantage achieved Sunday in next week’s Home Depot encounter. Should they be one goal up at the end of the regulation 45 minutes the teams will square off for a 30 minute overtime extension. If the teams are dead even after that phase then the issue of advancement to the next round will be decided on penalty kicks.
Sunday’s game was the final Sounders’ Seattle appearance of the season. The team ended the campaign with an 8-5-3 mark at home counting regular season and playoff matches.
Seattle defender Jeff Parke was replaced in the 65th minute by Tyrone Marshall after sustaining a twisted ankle. The seriousness of the injury along with Parke’s availability November 7 are presently undetermined.