How They Got Here
LA entered the playoffs as the fourth seed in the West and took on Vancouver in the play-in match. After falling behind to a shocking early goal from Darren Mattocks in the third minute of play, the Galaxy slowly ratcheted up the pressure, dominating the possession and the chances as the Whitecaps bunkered to hold onto their narrow advantage.
Mike Magee drew them level with a lovely side-volley off a Juninho cross from a short David Beckham corner, before Vancouver's game-plan came undone. Jay DeMerit was forced off with injury; his replacement, Martin Bonjour, immediately conceded a soft penalty kick with an arm across the path of Landon Donovan who had gotten position on him chasing after a Robbie Keane through ball and took the opportunity to go to ground.
Donovan himself converted the kick and LA progressed 2-1 over Vancouver.
They met top seeded San Jose in the next round and in the first leg at home the match appeared to be headed for a scoreless draw, until the ninety-fourth minute, when Victor Bernardez hammered a free kick from thirty yards towards goal. Omar Gonzalez, in the LA wall, inexplicably leapt, allowing the low shot to squeeze under him, Josh Saunders got to the rasping shot, but could only get a piece of it and was forced to watch as it agonizingly trickled over the goal-line.
0-1 to San Jose.
But that loss woke up the defending champions, who came to life in the first half of the second leg at Buck Shaw Stadium in San Jose. Three first half goals including a Keane brace - a shot from distance perfectly placed off the inside of the post and a simple finish having rounded the keeper after latching onto a Donovan through-ball - and another adroit finish from Magee - one-timing a pass from Donovan - virtually extinguished the chances of the Supporter's Shield winner.
Alan Gordon drew one back in the eighty-second to set up a whirlwind finish and had Ike Opara not wasted a late chance the match could have seen extra time. But the centre-back did indeed sky his effort and the 1-3 result in San Jose saw Los Angeles advance by a single goal over their California rivals, 3-2 on aggregate.
Seattle, the third seed, began their post-season campaign with a rematch of the 2011 Western Conference Semifinal, again against Salt Lake.
Having fallen at the first round in each of their three seasons of playoff action, the 0-0 draw in the first leg at home was a disappointing result for Coach Sigi Schmid's side, hungry to add post-season success to their US Open Cup haul.
It was the third scoreless draw between the sides this season and the return leg in Salt Lake appeared destined to stretch into extra time and perhaps even penalties as Nick Rimando and Michael Gspurning both put on goaalkeeping clinics..
That is until the eighty-first minute when Mario Martinez, an unexpected starter in place of the injured Mauro Rosales, lashed a volley from a Fredy Montero cross that nestled neatly inside the post, beating Rimando, ending a run of over four hundred minutes without a goal against Salt Lake and allowing the Sounders to progress to the Conference Final, 1-0 on aggregate.
In the first of three meetings over the course of 2012, Eddie Johnson and Montero each scored on either side of half-time as Seattle strolled out winners by two goals. Interestingly, it was Seattle's first home win over LA in their fourth attempt. Johnson got on the end of a Rosales cross to head past Bill Gaudette, while Montero hit a thirty-five yard rocket to the top corner. The Galaxy fielded largely a reserve-laden lineup, choosing to rest the first team for the marquee match against New York three days later.
Despite both sides on short rest having played three days earlier - Seattle in the Champions League against Caledonia at home and LA against Real Madrid in a summer friendly - only one bothered to show up for this match. Johnson opened the scoring just six minutes in - a glancing header from another Rosales cross. Montero would have to wait until the start of the second half to double that lead, volleying a rebound past Saunders. Alex Caskey and Andy Rose rounded out the scoring as Seattle handed LA their worst loss in four seasons.
October 28th - 1-0 Los Angeles - their only meeting in LA
The final match of the regular season saw the two wrap up the series, again, both on short rest, having completed their Champions League obligations midweek. With the playoff structure already decided - Seattle, with a win could have moved up to second-place, but would have still played Salt Lake in the first round - and LA due to return to the pitch a mere four days later, both played a very cautious match. The deadlock was finally broken in the final ten minutes of play, when Keane and Magee played a little give-and-go coming in from the right that saw the Irishman lay a sweet pass into the arc for Magee to curl into the bottom corner of the goal.
Arena vs. Schmid
Bruce Arena and Sigi Schmid - two of the most decorated coaches in MLS history; between them they have collected five MLS Cups, five US Open Cups, five Supporter's Shields, and five MLS coach of the year awards. Both have been here before, have faced each other on numerous occasions, and this series should in the least be a master-class in coaching acumen. Both rely mainly on the old-school 4-4-2. Who makes the first substitution? Who blinks? The battle on the touchline should be nearly as interesting as the play on the pitch.
Attack vs. Defense
Seattle and LA, perhaps more so than any other teams in the league, have offensive batteries that have the potential to be explosive; at times, they are down-right unstoppable. For Seattle, it's Johnson, Montero, Rosales, Christian Tiffert, and now Martinez who will separate from the defensive core and launch quick attacks up field, making use of the flanks to stretch the play and make space to attack; for LA, it's Donovan, Keane, Magee, Beckham, and Buddle - to mention a few - they have a tendency to play a little more centrally, slipping through-balls and constantly testing the back-line with balls into space. LA's back-line, chopped and changed as it has been, had struggled to find consistency; Seattle's has held strong for much of the season, but has shown signs that it can be exploited, especially if injury and suspension start to catch them up.
The Battle for the Flanks
The use of width is more crucial to the Seattle attack, the combination of Rosales cross-Johnson header has accounted for more than a few goals for the Sounders this season. Should LA dominate the touch-lines, using their full-backs to compress that space and force Seattle to play through the middle, it would be to their advantage. But if Todd Dunivant and Sean Franklin are over run, Johnson will cause Omar Gonzalez and Tommy Meyer a lot of trouble.
Osvaldo Alonso vs. Juninho
Two of the premier central midfielders in the league, if either can dominate the other, it will go a long way to deciding the affair. Watch for a crunching tackle or two if they get too close. Juninho will likely be backed up by Marcelo Sarvas, expect Tiffert and one of Brad Evans, Rose, or Caskey on the flank to remain cautious should Alonso require some assistance.
Who Counters Who?
Both these sides love a good, quick counterattack. But both know that the other knows that and know that the other knows that they know that. See where this is going? This will, by necessity, be a very tight series. Both will wait for their chance to pounce on a mistake and constantly be testing for weaknesses in their opponent. Chess - Click; Your move.
Points of Order
This is LA's fourth straight Western Conference Final - of twelve all-time and seven Cup appearances; but it is the first time in their four seasons of existence that Seattle have progressed past the first round of the playoffs.
The suspension of Seattle's left-back Marc Burch for the remainder of the post-season (three matches) has put his club at a severe disadvantage. First-choice back Leo Gonzalez is still nursing a hamstring strain, utility defender Patrick Ianni to is struggling with a strain and without the services of Burch, Schmid will likely be forced to field a player out of position - most likely Evans, Caskey, or Rose.
Yellow card suspensions could play a major role in this series. For LA, Beckham, Gonzalez, Juninho, and Sarvas are all one yellow away from missing the second leg; for Seattle, Alonso, Evans, and centre-back Jeff Parke are similarly at risk.