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Seattle Sounders vs. LAFC: MLS standard-bearers clash in West semis | MLSSoccer.com

Seattle Sounders vs. LAFC: MLS standard-bearers clash in West semis | MLSSoccer.com

If you subscribe to the familiar MLS metaphor of “flagship clubs” – and perhaps such nautical language fits for a match of consequence on the east shoreline of Puget Sound – then Sunday’s Conference Semifinal at Lumen Field (9:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass) is the equivalent of two carrier strike groups doing battle.

“Coming from the Western Conference,” Seattle Sounders fullback Alex Roldan said a few days ago, “these are the two top teams that everybody’s looking at.”

Class of the league

For more than a decade, the Sounders have set the standard for what a successful MLS organization looks like on and off the field. They’ve operated a stable, competent front office, crafted a recognizable brand, stacked up year after year of excellent attendance numbers, are enduringly relevant in their region, have one of the league’s largest press packs and qualified for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs every season since their 2009 expansion debut save one – last year, when they achieved what no other modern MLS team has by winning the Concacaf Champions League.

Since 2016, the Rave Green have accelerated from competitive to fearsome on the pitch, reaching four MLS Cup finals and winning two of them. No one has won more postseason matches since their arrival in the league, not to mention the Supporters’ Shield and four US Open Cups in their cabinet, and precious few have hit on Designated Player investments as successfully as they did with playmaker Nico Lodeiro and striker Raúl Ruidíaz.

Yet Sunday’s visitors can plausibly claim to have set an even steeper upward trajectory since their birth in 2018. Defending league champions and 2022 Shield winners LAFC have jumped well ahead of the expansion curve in every way, and in the process, became an outfit, much like Seattle, that other MLS fan bases love to hate.

Rivalry renewed

Confident, ambitious, talent-rich, spearheaded by MLS Golden Boot winner Dénis Bouanga and the savvy Carlos Vela, they constitute the sternest test imaginable at this juncture of the playoffs. Whereas Sounders boss Brian Schmetzer is a seasoned member of the MLS coaching fraternity and longstanding servant of the club whose ties date back to his playing days with its NASL iteration in the 1980s, LAFC are led by Steve Cherundolo, one of the league’s youngest, who parlayed his European managerial education into immediate success last year, his first at the helm and his first in charge of a professional first team.

From their very first match – a 1-0 upset road win over the Sounders – the Angelinos have proven Seattle’s stiffest challenger in the West, accruing the most wins, most points and best winning percentage among Western Conference teams with a minimum of 190 games played.

Equally revealing is the Black & Gold’s 8W-5L-4D overall head-to-head record against the Sounders during that time, including a 0-0 draw at Lumen in March and a 1-0 home win in June decided by a 1st-minute Mateusz Bogusz goal.

Postseason theatrics

The playoffs, however, have been a glaring exception.

The first meeting was a Conference Final clash in 2019 where Seattle crashed the party in downtown Los Angeles, knocking off Bob Bradley’s Shield winners 3-1 with three unanswered goals in a Lodeiro-Ruidíaz masterclass en route to their second MLS Cup title.

Immediately after what Black & Gold assistant and former Sounders staffer Ante Razov called “probably the most difficult loss in LAFC history, for me” and “probably the greatest game in Sounders history” in a conversation with Max Bretos on the Inside LAFC Podcast last week, Schmetzer was asked by ESPN sideline reporter Sebastian Salazar how he was feeling.

“I feel a lot better than Bob,” he deadpanned, birthing an iconic moment in the clubs’ rivalry despite his subsequent expressions of empathy for the suffering of Bradley and his side. A year later the Rave Green inflicted the same scoreline on the Californians, this time in a first-round meeting in Seattle, albeit one with the asterisk of a COVID-19 outbreak that robbed LAFC of several starters.

The Sounders have kept most of the core of that team together up to this point, albeit with down-throttled roles and minutes for Ruidíaz and Lodeiro of late, making them leading contenders for supersub deployment off the bench in place of younger attackers like Léo Chú and Jordan Morris. Meanwhile LAFC retooled their roster and tactics significantly, with Bouanga in particular a devastatingly effective reinforcement whose explosive pace and one-on-one skill has cushioned the consequences of Vela’s advancing age.

“Alex Roldan is going to have his hands full,” said Schmetzer on the latest Sounders Weekly show. “And look, I got plenty of confidence in Alex, he’s shut down some players, he’s had international competition with El Salvador. He’s played against some top forwards, including Bouanga earlier in the year. But it’s going to take a team effort. They’ve got Carlos Vela, their center forward situation is kind of weird, because they’ll play Vela up there and their wingers are the guys that run in behind.

“So we’ll see who he lines up with,” he added, noting that Roldan’s older brother Cristian will be asked to track back and help out from his right wing slot. “We’ve done some defensive schemes that counteract him.”

“Decided by details”

Schmetzer reasoned that his team’s Round One defeat of a young, mobile FC Dallas squad was decent preparation for LAFC’s speed and aggression. Conversely, Cherundolo suggested after his side’s Round One second-leg road win over Vancouver at BC Place that it demonstrated to his players they could prosper on an artificial-turf surface in Cascadia much like Seattle’s, where the hosts plan to impose themselves, even in light of LAFC’s constant menace on the counterattack.

“We’re going to come after them,” promised Schmetzer. “Raining, windy, turf; we want to get on top of them early. We’re going to come out on the front foot. If we can pin them back and create chances, that’s what’s important. And then the defenders, we call it active defending – if we can shut down their transition moments, then I think we’re going to have a good result.”

With Seattle tied for the stingiest defensive record in the league in 2023 and LAFC not far behind, and just one goal scored across the 180-plus minutes of their regular-season meetings, this figures to be a tense affair with tight margins all over the pitch.

“There’s a lot of respect between the two teams,” said LAFC defender Giorgio Chiellini on Wednesday, delving into the Sounders’ game model with admirable detail, including an approving reference to the big Schmetzer decision to bench Lodeiro “in order to be more balanced and more solid” in central midfield.

“I expect a game that will be decided by details. Details could be a foul or a pass missed in a buildup, or a set piece,” added the cerebral Italian veteran. “Not an open game with back and forth and transition.”

“Heavyweight fight”

Both clubs will feel their journeys to this point have prepared them for this occasion, a one-off match with so much on the line.

For the Sounders, it could well be the last dance of a richly successful cycle, with Ruidiaz and Lodeiro chief among those whose futures are unknown. For LAFC, it’s the latest moment of truth in a marathon season marked by their own run to the CCL final, a tournament that ensured they’d already played a typical MLS season’s worth of games by summer’s arrival and had to navigate through the ensuing physical and psychological hangover.

“We’ve gone up and down the wringer for the entire season. We’ve got a group that is experienced. We know what’s waiting for us up there,” said Razov. “We know it’s a big test – it’s a massive test – up there. It’s a different venue, it’s a different surface, they have a big crowd. It’s going to be won on the field. And so again, can we make one more play than they do in this kind of game? I think it’s going to be a heavyweight fight, as it has been in the past.”

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