We have our first true marquee matchup of the young MLS season taking place this weekend, people.
On Saturday afternoon, Seattle Sounders FC will host LAFC (4 pm ET | MLS Season Pass, FOX). Both teams are currently in the top three in the Western Conference and have impressed through the early stages of 2023.
LAFC, MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield winners in 2022, have impressed across league and Concacaf Champions League play. Seattle, historic Concacaf Champions League winners last spring, dropped their first game of the year against FC Cincinnati last Saturday.
Who has the edge in this big Western Conference clash? Let’s dive in.
This is a lose-lose for me. No matter what I write over the next 1,000 words or so, I’m going to get spit-roasted by one group of MLS fans. I guess for this section, I chose to be spit-roasted at Pike Place Market. Do they even spit-roast stuff there? Let me know in my Twitter mentions after you flame me for thinking LAFC’s squad has a little more quality than your Sounders team.
It’s a close battle in this category. LAFC and Seattle have two of the best starting XIs in the entire league. For Seattle, Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan have been game-changers on the wing. According to American Soccer Analysis, they’re both in the top 20 in MLS for expected goals plus expected assists (xG+xA). It’s too early in the season for those numbers to mean too much, but it’s absolutely not too early to have noticed how threatening those players are in the attack.
Morris, in particular, has been dangerous this year. He leads the league in xG+xA, according to ASA. His mixture of speed (which gave FC Cincinnati’s high line some major problems on Saturday) and movement in the box makes him a near-constant threat.
But LAFC have dangerous wingers, too.
Dénis Bouanga has been red-hot in 2023, scoring five goals in all competitions and showing everyone exactly why LAFC signed him as a Designated Player last summer. His ability to crash the left side of the box and find a gap in the opposing defense is elite. Plus, with strong ball progressors like Carlos Vela, Kwadwo Opoku, José Cifuentes, and Ryan Hollingshead on the right, LAFC can draw the opposing defense to that right side before cutting the ball back to Bouanga to rip right through the under-manned left wing.
Both forward lines (and teams) are incredibly talented. And Raúl Ruidíaz potentially coming back into the starting XI makes Seattle’s group even more dangerous. Still, LAFC have shown an impressive ability to attack without a default No. 9. A rotating trio of Opoku, Bouanga, and Vela (or Stipe Biuk) has been lethal in 2023.
To stick with Biuk for a moment – or, rather to stick with players in Biuk’s situation for LAFC – the real reason I’m giving the edge here to LAFC is because of their depth. Their starting outfield players are close enough in quality (and Stefan Frei gives Seattle an edge over John McCarthy at goalkeeper), but I’d rather have Biuk, Timothy Tillman, and Aaron Long coming off the bench to close out a game than Fredy Montero (while Héber is hurt), Léo Chú, Kelyn Rowe, and Josh Atencio.
I’m giving the overall quality advantage to LAFC. My mentions are ready.
Let me toss out a couple of numbers that might surprise you: in 2023, the Seattle Sounders are averaging 53.7% possession, while LAFC are averaging just 45.5%.
A team’s possession doesn’t necessarily equate to their tactical style – and I would expect both of those numbers to trend closer to 50% over the next month or so. But still, it’s absolutely true that the Sounders have used the ball in meaningful ways more this year than they have in recent memory. Part of that is their first few opponents, but the other part of that is getting João Paulo back and shifting to a more stable back three in possession.
Seattle look scary with the ball, whether that’s in transition or in possession. The same goes for LAFC, who have really leaned into the whole “we don’t need our center backs to take risks on the ball in the back unless that center back is a certain 38-year-old Italian.” They want to win the midfield battle and beat you in open space, though they can still have success in more sustained possession sequences.
The truth is, both of these teams are good at most attacking areas.
Defensively, LAFC’s 4-3-3 press could cause Seattle some problems – and it will create chances to run right up the gut, where Seattle can be vulnerable in midfield with João Paulo and Albert Rusnak given that neither of those players are true disruptors. FC Cincinnati found success pressing Seattle for a goal on Saturday. On the other hand, Yeimar Gómez could help Seattle break through that initial pressure to find Nico Lodeiro on either side of Ilie Sánchez, LAFC’s No. 6. With Ilie’s lack of pace, the Sounders could catch LAFC out and transition quickly into the attack with Morris streaking in behind the opposing backline.
There are a lot of “could”s and “maybe”s there, which is exactly what happens when two really good teams meet. I’m calling this one a stalemate.
As much as Lodeiro will haunt Ilie when the Sounders are in possession, it’s hard to look past the advantage that LAFC will likely have in central areas in this match. I mentioned it above, but Seattle’s lack of a ball-winner or disruptor in defensive midfield could give LAFC a boost in this game. Some combination of Cifuentes, Kellyn Acosta, and Tillman in central midfield mixed with Opoku running full steam ahead at the slower Jackson Ragen will cause problems for Seattle for stretches of this game.
One thing that will help Seattle, though: If they can force this game to be played in the wide areas as much as possible, they’ll be in a better position than if a ton of meaningful actions are taking place centrally. If the Sounders…
- Play out wide in buildup to get around LAFC’s 4-3-3 press
- Isolate Morris 1-v-1 with LAFC’s right back (either Hollingshead or Sergi Palencia)
- Force LAFC’s wingers to track back and defend against the front five that Brian Schmetzer likes to shift to in the attack
…they’ll negate at least some of LAFC’s edge in this micro-matchup category.
The Sounders are at home. In MLS, the home team wins roughly 50% of the time, while draws and away wins have to split the other 50%. Between their home-field advantage and the fact LAFC are playing extra minutes due to their CCL series against Costa Rica’s Alajuelense, Seattle should have fresher legs and plenty more backing from the folks at Lumen Field.
All in all, this matchup has the makings of an elite MLS regular-season contest. LAFC have the edge when it comes to overall player quality and some of those micro-matchups, but Seattle’s status as the home team and their ability to expose some of LAFC’s weaknesses could swing the tide in their favor. I don’t know about you, but I’m grabbing some popcorn for this match between early trophy favorites.