Positive vibes from MLS big guns
The Los Angeles Galaxy and Seattle Sounders both showed why they are considered the top two teams in Major League Soccer heading into the 2012 season after both posted impressive results in Wednesday’s CONCACAF Champions League action.
The Galaxy overcame a slow start and 2-0 deficit against an inspired Toronto FC side to leave Canada with a vital 2-2 draw in their quarterfinal match-up.
The Sounders were even more impressive, taking on an in-form Santos Laguna side and outplaying them, with David Estrada and Brad Evans scoring the goals in a 2-1 victory in Seattle.
The night provided a showcase for the two most stacked teams in MLS, and provided us an early glimpse of what we can expect in the coming months. For the Sounders, Wednesday was a stiff test against a streaking Mexican power, a test Seattle passed with flying colors, leading Santos Laguna manager Benjamin Galindo to state after the match that the Sounders could play with any team in Mexico.
Based on how the match went, you wouldn’t have guessed that Seattle was the team in the midst of its preseason and Santos was the squad in the middle of a campaign. Sounders were sharp in possession and organized defensively. They gave Santos Laguna few quality looks - no small achievement against the highest-scoring offense in the Mexican First Division, an offense that erupted for five goals in a blowout win last weekend.
It wasn’t a complete disaster of a night for Santos Laguna. They didn’t win, but they came away with a vital away goal, and can advance to the Champions League semifinals with a 1-0 victory (or a multi-goal victory of any score), when they face Seattle in Torreon next week.
It was none other than American striker and World Cup veteran Herculez Gomez who provided the vital away goal for Santos Laguna, finishing off a beautiful chance to mark his third straight match with a goal. A player who has broken into the Santos Laguna starting lineup after an injury to star forward Carlos Darwin Quintero, Gomez has continued to deliver goals in bunches for Mexican clubs, with his tally now at 25 goals in the little more than two years since he first left MLS.
While Gomez was one of the few bright spots for Santos Laguna, Sounders fans eager to see the team’s new additions came away impressed with the squad’s new starting goalkeeper and right back. Michael Gspurning wasn’t exactly bombarded with shots, but he met every challenge with poise and good positioning, never wavering and looking every bit the kind of confident goalkeeper Seattle grew accustomed to when Kasey Keller was still in net. At right back, Adam Johansson was steady and effective throughout.
Seattle will need to play at least as well as they did on Wednesday next week in Torreon, where Santos Laguna has yet to lose this year. The track record of MLS teams playing in Mexico is a dismal one, but results have been improving and the Sounders beat a strong Monterrey squad in Mexico in the Champions League group stage, so getting a result south of the border is something they have done before.
Meanwhile, north of the border, the Galaxy overcame a shaky start and flashed the quality expected of them heading into the new MLS season. Toronto FC came out flying, and put two goals on the Galaxy defense after just 12 minutes, but the Galaxy eventually settled down defensively and began controlling the match after TFC cooled off.
Mike Magee picked up where he left off in 2011, scoring a vital first goal after Stefan Frei failed to clear away a dangerous cross. With the score 2-1, the Galaxy equalizer seemed inevitable, but it took nearly the full match to find it. A TFC defense that slowly began to show cracks as the match went on finally succumbed in the 89th minute when it failed to clear away a corner kick and the loose ball fell to a wide-open Donovan, who quickly slotted home the equalizer.
Aron Winter will feel a bit sick watching his team squander a two-goal lead, and he might reconsider his late game insertion of rookie Aaron Maund, who lost his mark on Donovan on the equalizing goal literally seconds after coming into the match.
Despite that disappointing finish, TFC can come away from the match with plenty of positives. Torsten Frings was outstanding, playing practically as a libero, supporting the centerbacks while getting forward when he could. He helped set up both goals and broke up countless Galaxy attacks.
Then there was rookie Luis Silva, who showed why he is being pegged as a Rookie of the Year favorite. The East LA-born playmaker with a nose for goal scored a beautiful header to put Toronto up 2-0 on his hometown team. He impressed playing against Galaxy midfielder Juninho and looks every bit like a player ready to play a key role.
Galaxy head home in control of the series, with the second leg set for the Home Depot Center, where LA didn’t lose an official match in all of 2011. Toronto FC will be hard pressed to beat the Galaxy on the wide HDC field, but if they can show effort like they did in the first leg, they will come away from these quarterfinals confident about what they can do in MLS, even if they are eliminated.
Seattle won’t be looking for a moral victory when they head to Mexico next week. The Sounders have the squad to go to Torreon and secure the needed result. It won’t be easy, and it’s a safe bet Santos Laguna will throw everything they have at the Sounders defense, but if Seattle can play like they did on Wednesday, they could wind up earning a semifinal series date with the Galaxy, with a berth in the Champions League final on the line.