The Seattle Sounders fought their way to the best record in Major League Soccer this season partly by beating up on the Galaxy in their final two regular-season games.
Not so much on the scoreboard, where Seattle earned just a win and a draw, but on the field, where the physical Sounders pummeled their opponents while committing 37 fouls and drawing seven cautions.
So when the teams met again Sunday in the first leg of the MLS Western Conference championships, the Galaxy stood up to the bully, pounding out a rough 1-0 win on Marcelo Sarvas’ goal early in the second half.
The series, which will be decided on aggregate goals, concludes next Sunday in Seattle with the winner earning the right to host the MLS Cup final on Dec. 7.
The Galaxy is planning to keep the gloves off for next week’s game as well.
“We don’t have kids on our team. We have lads who are grown men,” Galaxy captain Robbie Keane said. “If someone’s going to tackle you, tackle back.
“I got a few elbows there. It’s nothing to cry about. You have to give as good as you get.”
Especially in the playoffs, which of late has come to resemble a steel-cage match where anything goes and the referee is little more than a spectator. Although Kevin Stott whistled 25 fouls and handed out four yellow cards Sunday, that did little to calm the rough play — especially with Seattle’s Zach Scott, who committed a game-high four fouls after he was cautioned, yet was allowed to finish the contest.
A second yellow for Scott would have meant ejection from the game and a suspension for the next.
“I don’t think we quite understand how to deal with this competition with the rules, with cards and everything,” Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena said. “It’s been crazy. But it is what it is. And now we’ll have two teams going into the game Sunday with no one suspended. Which I guess was the premise behind some of the decisions today.”
After the contest some Galaxy players said the referee told them that’s exactly why he kept his cards in his pocket. Seattle Coach Sigi Schmid didn’t dispute that. But he said the Galaxy also got off lightly on occasion.
“In most games, the referee would have pulled that second yellow [on Scott] so I’m not going to pretend I didn’t see that or argue about that,” he said.
“We were fortunate that Zach stayed on the field.”
The Sounders weren’t so fortunate with their lineup, which was weakened by the loss of key midfielder Osvaldo Alonso to injury and forward Lamar Neagle, the team’s third-leading scorer, who rushed back to Seattle on Saturday to attend to an unspecified personal issue.
So the Sounders played defensively, content to soak up the pressure in the hopes of earning a draw and setting up a winner-take-all rematch at home. For much of the game, the Galaxy appeared willing to cooperate with that, missing on 11 first-half shots.
Sarvas finally ended the frustration seven minutes into second half when he took a centering pass from A.J. DeLaGarza at the top of the 18-yard box, and with nothing but space around him, blasted a right-footed shot off the hip of Seattle defender Chad Marshall and into the net.
On the other end, Galaxy keeper Jaime Penedo wasn’t tested often, but he came up big when challenged, especially in the 20th minute when he made a big save on Obafemi Martins, then jumped to his feet and stuck his left arm in front of Clint Dempsey’s shot off the rebound.
And that was enough to send the Galaxy to Seattle needing just a draw to keep alive hopes of a fifth MLS title.
“It was a good result. We’re happy,” said Penedo, who hasn’t allowed a goal in three postseason games. “But we know that this doesn’t guarantee us passage to the final. We have a difficult game coming up.”