The story of the MLS playoffs coming into Sunday night was the futility of being a higher seed. None of the higher seeds had advanced and the playoffs were seemingly wide-open for a new champion. Then LA took the pitch against Seattle, and they showed the league who should be the favorites for the MLS Cup. After an upset win in Seattle last Sunday, they took care of business at home and beat the Sounders 2-1, 3-1 on aggregate.
How did LA succeed where others failed? It was more than possibly having the best players. Here is a breakdown of how Los Angeles won their series where the other clubs could not:
1. Neutralize your opponents best player(s)
This is easier said than done, but it is critical in the playoffs that the opposing team’s star not be allowed to dictate play. This was Real Salt Lake’s downfall – David Ferreira set-up every FC Dallas goal and RSL’s vaunted defense could not find an answer for him. Thus they lost 3-2 on aggregate. Meanwhile, the Galaxy’s defense were able to neuter Fredy Montero, who needed a big series to help Seattle beat LA for the first time this season. Credit goes to DeLaGarza especially shutting down chance after chance for Montero and the Sounders’ forwards, although Montero himself struggled leading up to and during the match.
2. Your veterans play like its 1999
A major reason for the success of LA in the second leg was the resurgent play of Eddie Lewis. The retiring defender not only played a strong backline but created scoring chances in the first half of last night’s match. His cross into the box in the 19th minute was kicked out, setting up the Beckham corner that Buddle headed in for the first goal. And a great example of a true veteran playing like a younger player was David Beckham. Besides the glorious corner kicks he played hard all ninety minutes in the first leg and was all over the pitch. His former EPL counterpart, Thierry Henry, did not have the same impact for New York when they needed his scoring ability.
3. Defense wins championships
Seattle was not a doormat in this series, and especially in the first leg created some good scoring chances. However, credit goes to the Galaxy defense for sticking to the gameplan. DeLaGarza slides into the middle, and he muddles up the middle despite his unfamiliarity with the role. The key for the Galaxy was not allowing the creation of shots, and instead forcing the Sounders players to create their own chances. What resulted was Montero et al just putting the ball on net, making it even easier for Ricketts to make saves and minimize Seattle’s opportunities. The ten shots in the first leg were misleading – Seattle had maybe 3 or 4 great chances.
4. Details, details, details
The difference in the second leg was LA executing on set pieces, while Seattle could not defend them. The first goal was a Buddle header where he was not physically marked on the kick. While it was not an easy goal, it was too easy of a goal. The second was even worse – Omar Gonzalez beat the offside trap on the corner kick and was unmarked completely by the defense. At halftime, Sigi Schmid said the two things his team needed to focus on was defending corner kicks and completing passes. When that is your focus for the second half, you may have already lost.
5. Your coach out-coaches the other coach
I mentioned in a post last week how Schellas Hynmand out-coached Jason Kreis in the first leg of the FC Dallas/Real Salt Lake simply by making the right substitutions at the right time – Jeff Cunningham in the first half and Eric Avila in the second half. I’ve mentioned ad naseum the DeLaGarza shift and starting Eddie Lewis, but Bruce Arena in his series out-coached Sigi Schmid. His strategy in the first leg of the series snuffed out any Seattle momentum going into the second leg. His club overcame a sluggish end of the season to put on a clinic in the playoffs. Schmid, meanwhile, will go into the offseason being questioned why he didn’t play a more up-tempo match in LA or start Jaqua.