MLS giants LAFC and Seattle clash as playoffs heat up
Major League Soccer's playoffs reach the sudden-death knockout stage this weekend with the Western Conference semifinal clash between Los Angeles FC and the Seattle Sounders topping the bill.
Defending champions LAFC travel to Seattle on Sunday knowing they are up against one of the most consistent post-season performers in the league.
Seattle have reached the playoffs in all but one of their seasons since joining MLS in 2009, reaching four finals and clinching two MLS titles as well as the CONCACAF Champions League last year.
The first round of MLS's playoffs this season featured a best-of-three format but the conference semifinals, championship games and the MLS Cup are all single elimination games.
"Both teams are going to come out with an intensity and make sure that this isn't their last game of the season,” said Sounders defender Alex Roldan. "So, the stakes are very high."
The Sounders have a rich history as a club pre-dating their arrival in MLS - the club won four league titles in the second-tier United Soccer Leagues and before that were twice runners-up in the old North American Soccer League.
In contrast, LAFC are only in their sixth season of existence but they have quickly established themselves as one of MLS's powerhouses.
Twice they have topped the Western Conference and last season they went all the way, winning their first title with a thrilling penalty shoot-out victory over the Philadelphia Union.
LA are coached by former United States international Steve Cherundolo and he knows that Seattle have the upper hand in terms of crunch-time experience.
"I think they know how to play big games, maybe the only organisation that I am aware of that has had that number of big games in the last ten years," he said.
"At the very least you will see a very intense game, a competitive game, hopefully with good football but the players on the field will decide that," he added.
Cherundolo's counterpart, the quietly spoken Brian Schmetzer, is not a coach that draws much attention but the 61-year-old has an impressive track record having led the club to both MLS titles and two of those won in USL.
Seattle's traditional rivals are neighbouring Portland Timbers but Schmetzer says there is now something special about the clashes with LAFC.
"It feels like a rivalry in the sense that it is two of the biggest clubs in the league. We have high ambitions, high goals and so do they," he said, looking forward to the clash on his team's artificial turf field.
"We're going to come after them. 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...if we can shut down their transition moments, then I think we're going to have a good result," he said.
The weekend kicks off on Saturday with an appetizing encounter between two of the more attractive teams in the Eastern Conference when Orlando City host twice MLS champions, Columbus Crew.
The last time the teams met, on September 16 in Florida, the Crew led 3-1 after 69 minutes before Orlando roared back to win 4-3.
Orlando haven't been beaten at home since an April loss to D.C United.
Later on Saturday, the top-seed in the playoffs, FC Cincinnati host last year's runners-up Philadelphia.
Cincinnati took care of the New York Red Bulls in two games meaning, with the international break, they have not played for 17 days.
While there is the risk of some rustiness, head coach Pat Noonan has been grateful for the time to get some key players back to fitness.
"While it's less than ideal it really helped us for guys working their way back from injuries because the reality is if we were to play the week following (the match at Red Bull Arena) we would have had a lot of guys who wouldn’t be able to go," he said.
In the West, the Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City will do battle to meet the winner of the Seattle-LA tie.