Tip Sheet: Seattle, LA Galaxy punctuate season with Supporters Shield clash

LA Galaxy will travel to Seattle on Saturday afternoon to determine the fate of the Supporters' Shield and dole out homefield advantage throughout the MLS Cup playoffs.

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The final weekend of the MLS regular season offers perhaps its most anticipated and meaningful game. LA Galaxy and Seattle supplied a hint of the chaos and the intrigue  ahead when they met a week ago, but their 2-2 draw in Carson, Calif. served as a prelude to the decisive encounter ahead Saturday afternoon.

Both teams enter this affair at CenturyLink Field with their futures firmly within grasp. Seattle will claim its first Supporters’ Shield with a draw or a victory on home soil. LA Galaxy must triumph in order to claim the top seed in the Western Conference and edge out Sounders FC for homefield advantage.

It is a fraught match exacerbated by the events of a week ago and garnished by the MVP candidacies of Robbie Keane and Obafemi Martins and the luminaries otherwise on display. The scrappy affair included a two-goal Galaxy lead, a two-goal Sounders FC response, a host of tackles to break up the flow of the game, an Martins kick on A.J. DeLaGarza punished with only a yellow card, a Omar Gonzalez red card for a pair of bookable offenses and a glimpse of how these two teams reached this juncture in the first place.

Seattle will carry much of the responsibility to create similar excitement in the return match. Martins and Clint Dempsey hit full flight after the interval when Sounders FC created space on the break and used it to good effect to isolate the Galaxy central defenders one-versus-one. Those direct and potent tactics — particularly with Martins dropping off the line and into wider positions to collect the ball, combine with others and run at defenders — provide the most likely route to success once again with Gonzalez ruled out through suspension.

The home side boasts a fitful relationship with the wide areas, but it must focus first and foremost on stretching the Galaxy’s shape at the outset. Gonzalez’s absence strips away the reliable partnership in the heart of the defense. Sounders FC must figure out a way to test the revamped group – the inconsistent Leonardo is the most likely replacement – early and try to secure the early goal required to settle the nerves.

If the Galaxy can hold out in the early stages and neutralize the threat, then the visitors might establish a platform to replicate their previous successes at CenturyLink. Bruce Arena and his players understand how to win in this venue: They hold a 4-3-2 mark in Seattle since Sounders FC joined the league in 2009. They must keep their composure under early fire in order to lay the groundwork for more success.

Arena won’t set up his side to soak up pressure, but he will tell his players to time their forays intelligently to make the best use of their menacing counter. The visitors must punish Sounders FC for committing numbers into the attack (particularly in the wide areas, though Landon Donovan will have some tracking to do with DeAndre Yedlin pushing forward) and use the room in behind to good effect. They must also find those moments in the game where Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas can dictate terms in possession and, perhaps, link the play to create opportunities for Donovan, Keane and Gyasi Zardes to dash through the line. It is by no means a guarantee of success after the second-half reversal last week, but it is perhaps the most plausible route toward the required victory.

All of the particulars and the storylines meld together to create a deserved conclusion to an intriguing season and a spectacle worth consuming. This affair — complete with the two best teams over the course of this campaign playing in front of a significant crowd — provides a glimpse of the very best MLS can offer. It is down to one or both of these teams to rise to the occasion on the day and snatch the Supporters’ Shield firmly when the opportunity is presented.

Five Points – Week 34

1. Can Vancouver complete Portland’s miserable week?: Caleb Porter and his players must procure at least a point at FC Dallas on Saturday night to keep their postseason hopes alive. Even if the Timbers claim victory in Frisco, they will still miss out if the Whitecaps match their result against Colorado later on Saturday night. It will take something special — a winning display against the motivated hosts in Texas coupled with an unexpected Colorado revival — to avoid crashing out of both the CONCACAF Champions League and the MLS postseason chase in a matter of days.

2. FC Dallas grapples with its own priorities: FCD enters its task against the Timbers with its sights set firmly on third place in the Western Conference. Real Salt Lake applied the expected pressure with a straightforward 2-0 victory over Chivas USA in midweek. FCD controls its own destiny, though: Oscar Pareja’s side will book a direct date with either LA Galaxy or Seattle and shunt RSL into the Knockout Round with a triumph over Portland.

3. Sporting Kansas City grapples with CCL fallout: The defeat at Deportivo Saprissa on Thursday night exacted a significant toll on the MLS Cup holders: Sporting lost Benny Feilhaber to an ankle injury and taxed their legs with a lengthy journey and a punishing match. Sporting cannot afford to compound the Champions League exit with a misstep against New York. Anything less than a victory will leave Sporting exposed to a potential Knockout Round match in midweek. The modest silver lining for Peter Vermes’ side: Sporting will at least know the required result before stepping on the field on Sunday night.

4. Columbus attempts to complete its late push: New England completed its furious surge into the postseason with a victory at Crew Stadium last year. Columbus will not need such heroics after clinching a berth at New York this weekend. Gregg Berhalter’s side can apply ample pressure and position itself to snatch third place in the East – just like the Revs last year, in fact – with a victory over Philadelphia on Saturday afternoon.

5. As some prepare for the future, others say goodbye: Chicago stalwart Logan Pause and Houston coach Dominic Kinnear ended their tenures with their teams in Fire’s 2-1 victory on Friday night. Their departures will start a steady stream of farewells with clubs (Chivas USA, if everything proceeds as expected), Designated Players (Montréal forward Marco Di Vaio) and other familiar faces all preparing for the next phase. The focus inevitably falls on the playoff chase, but these contributors deserve their plaudits as they step off the stage.