Bruce Arena didn’t know whether to gloat or sigh.
The Los Angeles Galaxy coach had just watched Seattle Sounders FC outwork, outplay and — oh, by the way — outscore his MLS team in the second leg of the Western Conference championship series Sunday night.
“We didn’t play particularly well,” Arena said. “No question.”
Nor was there a question about whether the visitors’ less-than-scintillating performance at CenturyLink Field mattered. It didn’t.
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The Galaxy began the evening with a 3-0 aggregate-score lead, which meant the Sounders were spotting the defending MLS champions the equivalent of about three touchdowns on a football field.
On a night the rain alternated between a drizzle and a downpour, the Sounders made it uncomfortable for Arena and his team. They cut the aggregate margin to 3-1 on Eddie Johnson’s goal in the 12th minute, and to 3-2 on Zach Scott’s header into the bottom left corner in the 57th minute.
Game on, right?
Well, yes and no. If this had been a regular-season match, the Galaxy would’ve gone to the locker room for a blistering critique after a 2-1 defeat. Instead, the defending league champions celebrated their third MLS Cup berth in four seasons with a 4-2 aggregate-score victory.
Arena, the former Tacoma Tides goalkeeper who began his coaching career at the University of Puget Sound, sounded more relieved than jubilant.
“We knew how difficult it would be coming in here.” he said. “We didn’t pass well tonight, and we didn’t get many second-ball chances. But give the Sounders credit. Down three, they had to lay it all on the line and be aggressive and a little risky.
“And the conditions hurt,” continued Arena, referring to the wet turf that contributed to the Galaxy’s sloppy passing. “But that’s our problem, not theirs.”
Between the weather and slippery surface and the boisterous crowd of 44,575 (largest for a non-final playoff game in MLS history), the Galaxy appeared on the verge of an epic collapse when the momentum turned on a referee’s call in the 68th minute.
Sounders defender Adam Johansson was charged with a handball in the penalty area, setting up Galaxy striker Robbie Keane with a penalty kick. Keane placed a shot off his right foot past goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, and when the ball landed in the center of the net, the euphoria at the Clink was replaced by a prevailing sense of deflation.
Keane, a legend in his native Ireland, typically punctuates his goals by performing a cartwheel and a somersault. But after his third goal of the series and fifth of the playoffs, Keane stood motionless until Galaxy teammate David Beckham embraced him with a bear hug.
The Sounders’ mood, and the mood of the fans, deteriorated from there. Everybody realized a two-goal deficit represented a hill that wasn’t going to be scaled.
Sounders coach Sigi Schmid suggested the penalty on Johansson should have been a no call — the Galaxy, he pointed out, was not in a position to score, because there was nobody in place for receiving the pass — and Arena declined to opine.
“I didn’t see it,” Arena said, adding, “But even if we don’t get the penalty, we’re still ahead 3-2.”
Controversial penalty, but a fair point.
So while the Galaxy awaits a Dec. 1 home date against Houston for the MLS Cup, the Sounders are left to contemplate a series that, for all practical purposes, was lost before it ever got to back Seattle.
“Do you get the sense,” Arena was asked, “that your team escaped something tonight?”
Arena replied with an edgy stare.
“I don’t feel like we escaped anything,” he said. “We won 4-2 in aggregate. What’s there to escape?”