Los Angeles and Seattle kicked off the 2011 MLS season by offering an entertaining affair that showed the close season did not produce a groundswell of changes for either side.
Injuries and rain showers ensured this match enjoyed its fair share of open space and tempting opportunities in front of goal, but the final outcome in the Galaxy's 1-0 victory hinged on the continuation of tendencies enshrined last year.
Los Angeles once again leaned on its ability to grind out results with equal doses of composure and ruthlessness, while Seattle again struggled with its inability to translate spells of promising attacking play into goals.
Much of the credit rests with the Galaxy for securing a victory on a night when most clubs would have squandered the points entirely. David Beckham and Landon Donovan were peripheral figures for most of the evening, though each player went close to scoring on one or two occasions. In addition to rather mundane nights from both Galaxy stars, Juan Pablo Angel, Omar Gonzalez and Donovan Ricketts missed out entirely through illness (Angel) and injury (Gonzalez and Ricketts).
With so many key figures limited, this night belonged to the Galaxy's squad players rather than its stars. Backup goalkeeper Josh Saunders supplied several fine saves to repel the Sounders at different points during the night. Leonardo stepped into central defense for Gonzalez and fared well enough in a makeshift partnership with AJ DeLaGarza.
Those contributions were complemented by the shift submitted in central midfield by regular starters Chris Birchall and Juninho. The duo has received criticism in the past – those concerns were noted in the Musings' Western Conference preview – but both players offered the energetic displays required to neutralize Seattle's ambitions in the center of the park.
After playing together for a reasonable spell of time, Birchall and Juninho have struck up an understanding as to how to manage the space through the center of the field. Birchall is nominally the holding player, but the partnership works best when the duo sorts out the necessary duties as play develops. While the balance may not have turned out quite right as Seattle grabbed the initiative during the first half, it worked out well in the second half as Los Angeles cut off some of the service to the wide areas and secured more possession.
Given Juninho's work on the evening, it felt appropriate that the little Brazilian provided the touch of class required to decide the game after 58 minutes. Two poor decisions by Seattle's central midfield duo – Osvaldo Alonso's suspect choice to overlap Steve Zakuani on the halfway line and push out near the left touch line and Erik Friberg's dreadful pass out to the right wing shortly thereafter – provided Los Angeles with the opening it required.
Todd Dunivant anticipated Friberg's pass out to the flank and stepped in to spark the Galaxy forward quickly in transition. With Friberg pulled out to the right to combat Dunivant's run and Alonso well out of the play on the left, Juninho moved into the vacated space at the top of the penalty area, received Dunivant's square pass and uncorked a swerving drive to tally the first goal of the nascent season.
Despite Seattle's promising attacking endeavors during a first half in which Sounders FC controlled the majority of the possession and placed five shots on target, the home side never really inspired much confidence that it would find a way to snatch an equalizer in the wake of Juninho's opener.
The problem with Seattle's present constitution is that Sounders FC lacks a bit of guile and menace in the final third. Most of the bright play comes from Steve Zakuani down the left, but there isn't quite enough balance with Alvaro Fernandez – who isn't a true winger – down the right and there definitely isn't enough push through the middle.
A dearth of alternative options leaves Fredy Montero with a lack of service to his feet and a paucity of space to exploit in dangerous areas. Opposing defenses can restrict Montero's movement because there simply aren't any reasons to move off of him onto other players.
Seattle coach Sigi Schmid expected that Blaise Nkufo would occupy defenders higher up the field and permit Montero to operate in freer space underneath him. While the theory worked wonders on the chalkboard, it did not work as well as expected on the field. The modest production caused Nkufo and Seattle to part ways today to free up budget room for the next potential attacking addition.
(A note on the mechanism used to remove Nkufo from the roster: Under provision III.D of the 2011 MLS player rules, clubs are permitted to buy out the contract of one guaranteed player during the offseason at their own expense without retaining that player's charge on the current budget. In simpler terms, Seattle created approximate $335,000 in budget space by digging into its own pockets to reach a settlement agreement to end Nkufo's contract.)
As last year's proceedings showed and this first outing reinforced, Seattle requires fresh blood to provide additional sharpness in front of goal to relieve Montero of the hefty burden he currently carries. O'Brian White partnered Montero against the Galaxy, but his pace does not make up for his lack of composure in front of goal and his preference to dart behind defenders instead of occupying them. With the former TFC forward best suited for a substitute's role and a lack of alternatives currently in the squad, Seattle must move quickly to supplement a rather thin striking corps after Nkufo's departure.
Unless Seattle can rectify its profligacy in the penalty area and transform its pretty attacking flourishes into concrete achievements, it may fall into the rut that plagued its lofty aspirations last season. Familiarity does not breed similar contempt in Los Angeles after the Galaxy secured its fifth consecutive league win over Sounders FC, but it does provide evidence that Arena's side possesses the necessary tools to excel during the regular season.
With 33 matches still remaining in the nascent days of this promising campaign, it is, however, still possible to break those familiar molds as the season progresses.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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