The Sounders didn't play like the hottest team in the league. They didn't play the same style — attacking through the midfield with Alonzo and Nathan Sturgis — as they had for most of the second half of the season. This was a different team and a different night and now Sounders FC's task, going...

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The fireworks exploded in the first minute of the game. Osvaldo Alonso cracked a shot that Los Angeles keeper Donovan Ricketts fisted to Steve Zakuani who volleyed the rebound into the back of the net.

For a moment it seemed as if Sounders FC had a 1-0 lead. The roars bellowed inside Qwest Field. Fireworks crackled above the north bleachers.

But the fireworks were premature. Zakuani’s would-be goal was too good to be true.

He was offside. The smoke cleared. The celebration ended and the game tilted toward L.A.

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These Sounders, who lost 1-0 in the first leg of their home-and-home MLS playoff series against the L.A. Galaxy, weren’t the same team we’ve been watching since mid-July.

This wasn’t the same team that went 10-2-3 in its final 15 regular-season games. It wasn’t the same team that won its second consecutive U.S. Open Cup earlier in the month.

The Sounders didn’t play like the hottest team in the league. They didn’t play the same style — attacking through the midfield with Alonso and Nathan Sturgis — as they had for most of the second half of the season.

This was a different team and a different night and now Sounders FC’s task, going to Los Angeles on Sunday for the second leg of this first-round playoff, is monumental.

“It was frustrating. I don’t know why, but for whatever reason today we didn’t play the way we’ve been playing, which is building from the back, going through the midfield and getting to the forwards,” Zakuani said. “The game has to be made by Sturgis and Alonso. It has to. And we were skipping them a lot today.”

The Sounders abandoned their game early, sending too many long balls downfield, instead of playing the attractive buildup that has been so effective since midfielder Freddie Ljungberg left for Chicago.

“We never had our game going,” Zakuani said. “(It’s) insane really that we still had a lot chances and I think we could have scored two or three goals possibly. To be fair we had some pretty good chances and we’re quite disappointed that we didn’t finish them.

“But, as a team, we really didn’t play how we’ve been playing. It’s been very basic. We get the balls to the midfielders. We get it wide. We spring the wingers. We didn’t play well in the first half and they (Edson Buddle) scored an unbelievable goal. You can’t do nothing about that.”

The Sounders had dangerous opportunities late. Nate Jaqua, who replaced Sturgis in the 81st minute, made an immediate impact.

He was a stride away from a Blaise Nkufo touch in the 83rd minute, then four minutes later had the tying goal on his boot, but struck his near-post attempt low into the diving Ricketts.

It was another postseason night of almosts for a franchise still looking to score its first playoff goal. The Sounders have gone 300 minutes in the postseason without scoring.

This young team still hasn’t shown an ability to score in big games. A young team still appears to be pressing in the heat of the postseason.

“When we play here we play off the crowd’s energy,” Zakuani said. “And sometimes they can put you off your game because you’re so pumped up when you’re trying to get after these guys.”

Credit should go to the Galaxy, which executed coach Bruce Arena’s game plan to perfection.

“It was tough to find each other today,” Zakuani said.

Every time Sanna Nyassi touched the ball he was double- and triple-teamed. Zakuani, Nkufo and the struggling Fredy Montero were smothered much of the night. The Galaxy set up two banks of four defenders each and dared the Sounders to play through them.

“They make it really difficult to play through midfield,” keeper Kasey Keller said. “Sometimes you have to take what the team gives you. Maybe a few teams, like Brazil, can truly go out and dictate their style, but you see what’s open and you make that happen.”

This is what the Sounders now face: It’s halftime in the first round of the playoffs and the best team in the MLS has a one-goal advantage and 90 minutes of home-field advantage to defend that lead.

And now the fireworks that crackled so optimistically, but so briefly, have disappeared into the chilly autumn night. And the light from this second Sounders’ season is flickering.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or

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