The plan Seattle coach Sigi Schmid drew up before heading to Los Angeles for a crucial Western Conference finals first leg was simple: pack the midfield, keep the ball away from LA’s dangerous attackers, and head back to Seattle and 40,000-plus screaming fans level on goals.
For exactly 45 minutes Sunday, the strategy worked. The Sounders enjoyed an early edge in possession and kept the Galaxy off the score sheet. When repeated counterattacks through Sean Franklin and Landon Donovan threatened to overrun Seattle midway through the first half, a Sounders midfield led by Osvaldo Alonso temporarily halted the assault by stringing together passes and testing Josh Saunders from long range.
But moments after the stadium PA announcer announced the start first half stoppage time, everything unraveled. Galaxy right back Sean Franklin, who had gotten behind the Seattle defense several times already, streaked down the right sideline and crossed to Landon Donovan in the Seattle penalty area. Donovan took two touches and chipped across the goal to a waiting Robbie Keane, who headed home for a 1-0 Galaxy advantage.
And just like that, out went the pregame plan.
“We were a minute away in the first half from having it go the way we want it to go,” Schmid said.
In the visitors’ locker room, Schmid told his players not to change what they were doing; keep clogging the midfield, keep holding the ball, because a one-goal deficit would not be too much to overturn on the return leg in Seattle.
But when the second half whistle blew, the Sounders seemed not to have heard their coach’s message. They became stretched, wandered far upfield and exposed themselves to the Galaxy’s specialty under head coach Bruce Arena: a ruthless and frightening counterattack.
After several close calls, they paid for it. In the 64th minute, a Seattle turnover near the Galaxy penalty box eventually fell to David Beckham, who linked up with Keane at midfield. Keane split the Seattle defense when he found an overlapping Sean Franklin, who squared to Mike Magee for an easy finish and a 2-0 lead. The Galaxy added a third three minutes later, and the scoreline could have easily ballooned to 5-0 or 6-0 as the Galaxy tore through a disorganized Sounders side.
After the game, Sounders players said they tried to stick to the game plan, but admitted the goal changed things.
“We were trying to hold the ball. Unfortunately we gave up one goal, 45th minute of the first half, I think in that moment we knew one goal was okay. We came to the second half with the same mentality, to hold the ball and keep the score [at 1-0],” said forward Fredy Montero. “I don’t know exactly what happened [in the second half], but we couldn’t find a way to score goals, but at the same time they are a really good team and they score the opportunities that they have.”
Schmid was reluctant to say his players had panicked, but alluded to a difference in experience level between the two sides.
“I think we possibly pushed a little bit when we shouldn’t have pushed to try and get the goal back, because getting the goal back wasn’t important. 1-0 was fine," Schmid said.
He added: "I think the goal at the end of the half certainly changed the complexion a little, but it’s over now.”
And so, perhaps, is another Seattle season.
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