There are, as Seattle Sounders coach Sigi Schmid put it, “games within the game” that will determine the outcome in the first leg of the Galaxy's first-round Major League Soccer playoff series Sunday at Seattle.
Here are three of those “games”:
1. STEVE ZAKUANI VS. SEAN FRANKLIN, ET AL
Zakuani, whom Seattle made the top overall pick out of NCAA powerhouse Akron in the 2009 draft, has every tool and has learned in two professional campaigns how to use them. Now there's talk in England about bringing him home.
The Congolese-born, London-raised winger has immense speed, skill, power and self-confidence -- lots and lots of self-confidence -- and he delights in running at defenders, beating them one-on-one, then feeding teammates or scoring himself. He has a superb relationship with Fredy Montero, the Sounders' attacking engine, and benefits from striker Blaise Nkufo's ability to hold the ball.
Zakuani plays on the left, meaning that Sean Franklin, the Galaxy's fastest backliner, will have foremost responsibility to, uh, slow him down.
“It's impossible to slow him down, because he's so quick,” said David Beckham. “But I've always said the game's not about pace all the time. It's about making the right passes and being clever about things. We know that if we pass the ball around well and we play our own football, then I don't see it being a problem.”
It's all about keeping Zakuani from finding space, which is difficult because his pace and dribbling skills enable him to exploit gaps and create space behind the backline.
“He's been great,” Galaxy captain Landon Donovan said. “I think he's been their best player this year. He's powerful, he's fast, and he's relentless, and he goes and goes and goes. Sean's going to have his hands full, and we've got to do a good job he's not isolated one-on-one.”
It's a tricky proposition. Beckham, Omar Gonzalez, holding midfielder Dema Kovalenko (or Chris Birchall) -- really, everyone who ventures toward that flank and near the L.A. box -- must provide Franklin support and be ready to step in and challenge when required. All while keeping tabs on the Sounders' other weapons.
2. FREDY MONTERO VS. THE GALAXY DEFENSE
Galaxy coach Bruce Arena says the Sounders' resurgence, in great part, came when they “really turned the team over to Montero.” The Colombian forward is Seattle's glue: He connects everything together, and his impressive numbers -- 10 goals, 10 assists -- don't begin to explain his importance.
Todd Dunivant praises Montero's “special” knack for being where the action falls.
“He's a very good head-hunter in the box," the Galaxy left back said. "When there's shots, when there's loose balls, he always finds a way to get that deflection, just be in the right spot to get a tap-in."
It will require a team effort to neutralize Montero, who has the freedom to go where he likes and is as capable a playmaker as he is a play-finisher.
“He's not a pure goalscoring forward,” Seattle defender Patrick Ianni said. “He has the ability to link up, and he's one of the best players in out league at holding people off and using his body well. He has that perfect soccer body: short, stocky stature, really explosive.”
3. LANDON DONOVAN VS. OSVALDO ALONSO, NATHAN STURGIS AND JAMES RILEY
As Donovan goes, so goes the Galaxy -- and if L.A. is going to advance from this series, if it's going to win the MLS Cup title, the captain is going to have to take charge. And he doesn't always do that.
He's had several games this year where he lacked the intensity he brought to every match during his MVP season last year, and some of the blame for that goes to the Galaxy's sensational start: They were so far ahead of the pack by June -- they had 32 points by the World Cup break; 40 was enough to reach the playoffs -- that focus lagged, all over the field.
They can do so much more than they've shown.
“I think the last two weeks for us ... I think in training we've seen what we're capable of," Donovan said. "There's been a really good energy around training and in the games as well. I think we feel good about where we are right now.”
Donovan admits that “physically, I'm pretty tired. I don't have the same zip I had at the beginning of the year.” But the playoffs, he notes, has a way of lifting his game, and he's likely to be at the center of everything the Galaxy accomplishes on attack.
Alonso and Sturgis have developed into a fine tandem in the Sounders' midfield, and they'll be most responsible for trying to neutralize Donovan, who will start on the left flank but will cut inside and go forward as needed. Seattle right back Riley will need to provide support and try to hold up Donovan when he's making runs, with or without the ball, into the Sounders' box.
It's a difficult assignment for all three, especially as they'll also be occupied with Edson Buddle, Beckham, overlapping runs from Franklin and Dunivant, and Juninho's creativity in central midfield.