As Sounders FC prepare for LA Galaxy, what role will Steven Gerrard play?

Nobody within Sounders FC's locker room on Sunday would necessarily allow that the team explicitly wanted to face the LA Galaxy in the playoffs this year. It’s a tough postseason matchup that hasn’t ended well for Seattle in the past, and in some ways most of the team probably does simply see the coming game as just another stepping stone, not a chance at some sort of cinematic revenge.

But it’s hard to ignore the history, the callouses, the deep wounds inflicted on Seattle by this fixture in seasons past. In 2010, the Galaxy won two one-goal matchups in the Conference Semifinals. In 2012, it was a 4-2 aggregate result in the Western Conference Championship. Last season, a 2-1 win at CenturyLink Field was nullified by away goals, and the Galaxy advanced to MLS Cup anyway, despite even aggregate at 2-2.

All these things build to this week, when No. 4 seed Seattle hosts the No. 5 seed LA Galaxy to revive a playoff series Seattle may not have pined for outwardly. But internally? Finally pulling a season out from under the trophied team from SoCal would most certainly be sweet comeuppance.

“We're confident in terms of our ability to play at home,” Sounders FC Head Coach Sigi Schmid said this week. “I think in our three games against LA this year, I think shots on goal, I think we out-shot them in two out of three games. It’s just a matter of us playing well.”

Schmid’s clearly been pouring over numbers. In a 1-0 loss at home on April 12, the Sounders chalked up a season-high 10 shots on target to LA’s four. Seattle also out-shot LA 6-3 in a 1-1 draw on Oct. 4, and even its 3-1 loss in August was paced by six shots on frame to seven for the Galaxy. Those are fine margins.

Schmid was asked this week about differences in this team from the one that ended the Sounders’ 2014 season, and the absence of the now retired Landon Donovan is clearly the most glaring. But his following anecdote is worth pouring over as these two big market, big money teams prepare to collide.

“They obviously have a talented group, a good group,” Schmid said. “All of us are limited salary-cap wise. A lot of coaches say, ‘Oh, these guys are a higher budget team.’ Once you get beyond the three DPs, everybody’s basically working on the same budget.”

“Everybody’s basically equal there,” Schmid added. “There’s no David and Goliath.”

Based solely around Designated Players, this game certainly looks more like a pair of Goliaths trading jabs. The Galaxy of course added Steven Gerrard and Giovani dos Santos in the offseason, and Robbie Keane has been an MVP candidate since he walked into SoCal four years ago. Indeed, Keane might be considered the “best” Designated Player in MLS history by more than a few metrics.

But more to Schmid’s point, the bigger difference swirling around the Galaxy as they trek toward the postseason involves non-DPs like Sebastian Lletget as much as it does anyone else.

To understand why, you have to start with a player who no longer even plays for the Galaxy. For several years, Marcelo Sarvas and Juninho were unquestionably the most comfortable one-two central midfield combination in the league. To localize the connection once shared between the two, the on-field bond between Seattle’s Gonzalo Pineda and Osvaldo Alonso is a good place to start. Possession, buildup and vision.

In 2013, during Sarvas’ peak, he was averaging a 83.6 percent pass completion rate and around 54 passes per game. When paired with Juninho’s 60, LA created a perfect 4-4-2 base from which players like Donovan, Keane and Gyasi Zardes could launch attacks and counters. In many ways it was right out of a Bruce Arena coaching manual. He’d hit his ideal.

Sarvas’ departure to Colorado last offseason was buried under the news avalanche of Gerrard’s arrival, or the signing of a Mexican international like dos Santos in the prime of his career, but it was a harsh blow to the Galaxy’s tactical kneecaps. Sarvas was a metronome, a calming force and a quality tracker. He’s hardly a defensive wrecker, but his average of about three tackles per game was an invaluable resource to a midfield that needed his spadework.

Through his first 13 MLS games, Gerrard is averaging out about 47 passes per match, which is under Sarvas’ average, but not by a heap. The problem, and the reason why LA’s attack can either look gangbusters or completely disjointed, is that Gerrard is basically immobile at this point in his career. He’s 35, rarely even attempts to make tackles and isn’t great running box to box anymore.

Gerrard will join the forward movement at times, but he curates his moments carefully and is often late to the point of attack. Considering his role at the 2014 World Cup, Gerrard has basically been playing nonstop for more than two years, all with retirement approaching. He might’ve looked fresh in his first few games for the Galaxy given his very brief break following the conclusion of Liverpool’s 2014-15 season, but he’s slowed as the playoffs near.

Which is all well and good if he can find his targets. The problem is that 42 percent of his more than 600 MLS passes this season are categorized as long balls. Even with a dropping forward line featuring withdrawn strikers like Keane and dos Santos, Gerrard still has linkage problems.

The stalking Englishman is still capable of putting passes on the head of pin if he’s given the time, but his inability to free space for himself in crowded midfields has often left him with two options: a horizontal pass to Juninho to keep possession flowing or long, risky diagonal balls to Zardes or Lletget up the flanks with a higher factor of improbability. He’s more often chosen the latter this year.

In the sense that LA is as blunt in the attack as it’s been in several years, this match will almost certainly follow the same tactical pattern as the 1-1 draw earlier this month. The Galaxy will largely cede the middle of the field to the more possession-minded Sounders, who will look to instill an almost Gegenpress-style 4-4-2 to speed the flow of traffic to Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey with as much haste as prudence allows.

Meanwhile, the Galaxy will look to hit on the break and test the Sounders’ fullbacks via Lletget and Zardes, who are trouble in one-on-one situations. Expect Seattle to own the edge in possession percentage and overall passes by game’s end. Based on history, they’ll probably record more shots as well. What the scoreline looks like, though, is anyone’s guess.

So no, the Sounders might not admit this particular game means more to them than any other matchup the playoffs might’ve thrown their way. But don’t be surprised if there’s a bit more than meets the eye roiling beneath the surface come Wednesday night.