By JASON MITCHELL
SEATTLE, Wash. – The Los Angeles Galaxy might have lost the battle, but they won the war that is an aggregate goal series. Dropping 2-1 to the swarming Seattle Sounders on a rainy Sunday night, the Galaxy nonetheless prevailed 4-2 on aggregate in this Western Conference final and advanced to the MLS Cup.
The defending champion Galaxy will host the Houston Dynamo on Saturday, Dec. 1, at the Home Depot Center. It will be L.A.’s third trip to the league final in four years and a rematch of last year’s MLS Cup.
“Obviously the conditions were difficult,” said Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena, “with the surface and the rain. And Seattle played quite well, no question about that. Having said all that, we won this competition 4-2 and deserve to move forward.”
Seattle dominated throughout the match, but Robbie Keane scored the biggest goal of the night, converting a 67th minute penalty kick that put the Galaxy up 4-2 on aggregate with just over 20 minutes to play.
Referee Mark Geiger, a fan target throughout the night, called the controversial penalty for a handball on Seattle defender Adam Johansson. Calling the penalty “harsh,” Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid argued that a more clear-cut handball against Sean Franklin went uncalled in the first leg.
“That’s the way it seems to have gone for us a little bit this season,” Schmid lamented.
Arena, not surprisingly, was not about to concede the penalty was a difference-maker.
“I didn’t see it, so I couldn’t tell you,” said Arena when asked whether the play merited a penalty. “But even if we don’t get the penalty we still advance 3-2.”
Goalkeeper Michael Gspurning guessed wrong on the ensuing penalty kick, and Keane buried a shot into the left side of the net.
The goal seemed to deflate both the Sounders and the 44,575 in attendance at CenturyLink Field, raucous after a promising start for the home team.
In just the 12th minute, Eddie Johnson got on the end of a lobbed ball from defender Zach Scott and beat Omar Gonzalez to bury a shot past Galaxy goalkeeper Josh Saunders.
“We knew that in order to give ourselves a chance we were going to have to have a good start to the game,” Johnson said.
Just minutes earlier an apparent Johnson goal was called back for offside, although replays seemed to show the striker at least flush with the Galaxy back line.
“I thought we had a goal early from Eddie Johnson,” said Schmid. “I haven’t seen the replay so I don’t know if it was on[side] or offside. Some people have said that it was on. That would have helped us.”
Johnson, buzzing around throughout the night, blew an early opportunity when he sent a fifth-minute shot well over the crossbar. At the time Seattle seemed destined to score plenty against an L.A. side swooning early without midfielders Landon Donovan and Juninho, but the Galaxy showed resolve in withstanding a withering Seattle attack.
Zach Scott provided the only other goal Seattle could muster, pounding in a beautiful diving header off a Christian Tiffert corner kick in the 58th minute to put Seattle up 2-0 and just a goal away from tying the series.
“We knew we were going to get a goal on a set piece,” said Scott, “and we were fortunate there.”
For the next 10 minutes the series seemed in real doubt for the Galaxy. Until, as usual, Robbie Keane provided a much-needed goal.
“Robbie worked hard,” Arena said of his Irish forward. “We had to have guys do things that they’re not accustomed to, necessarily, and Robbie had to chase the ball a lot tonight, and did what we expect a player of his quality to do in a game like this and in these kind of conditions.”
It was the fifth goal of the playoffs for Keane, who’s been scorching since returning from summer international duty.
The aggregate victory completes a stunning turnaround for a Galaxy team that stumbled out of the gate with a championship hangover and spent much of the season well below the playoff seeds.
“I think early on it was a running joke,” said Saunders about the possibility of the defending champions not making the playoffs. “But we all knew we were going to pull through, and we did pull through.”
Yes they did, as the Galaxy have now qualified for their league-record eighth MLS Cup. A victory would give L.A. its fourth title, tied with D.C. United for most in league history.
For the Sounders, the loss marks the second season in a row the team has struggled to recover from 3-0 loss in the first leg of a playoff series. Real Salt Lake walloped Seattle 3-0 at Rio Tinto Stadium last year before falling 2-0 in the second match.
Asked what he talked to his players about after the loss, Schmid said, “The general message was we have to eliminate those 3-0 losses in the playoffs, because we’re showing we can win games in the playoffs.”
At least Seattle won’t have a long off-season to ponder another aborted title run. A CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals match against the Mexican side Tigres is scheduled for mid-March.
Los Angeles, on the other hand, has two weeks to get rested and healthy for the Houston Dynamo.