The Sounders bolted onto the scene this year with three straight shutout wins to start their first season in MLS. While they have struggled a bit of late, they remain near the top in the West mostly due to their lively home field advantage at Qwest field where they are 4-1-2 and have sold out all 28 thousand seats for every game so far this season.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt the team also boasts the reigning MLS coach of the year who led the Crew to the title last season. However, by far the most important player to date has been former US international goalkeeping legend, Kasey Keller. All he has done in his brief time is add his name to MLS record books by being the only goalie in MLS history to debut with three straight shutouts as well as set an MLS record 457 minute scoreless streak.
Keller is truly the backbone of the second best defense in the league as Seattle has only surrendered 11 goals in 13 games, only 4 of which have come at home and Seattle has yet to give up more than one at home in any game all year. Add that to the fact that Seattle has yet to lose when scoring a goal and DC hasn’t pitched a shutout on road since last October. So clearly the first goal in this game will be excruciatingly important.
However, scoring first on the road has been something of a specialty for DC’s league leading offense so far this year as they have taken the lead in 5 out of 6 road matches. Unfortunately, DC has only converted all those leads into wins one time against a pitiful NY side and they needed a miracle to do it. Their other leads have been squandered by giving up two ties to LA and KC, as well as losing to RSL and to NE last week on that horrific late PK.
However, Seattle’s home wins haven’t been really all that scary. They have beaten NY, SJ twice, and RSL, all of whom stink on the road if not downright stink overall. The Western teams don’t play on field turf so that is an advantage for Seattle in their own conference, but DC is well versed with playing on that surface (and worse) playing in the Eastern conference which has three fake fields in use. Anyway, point is Seattle has played very well at home overall, but maybe hasn’t really proven themselves against the better teams in the league yet.
Looking at the lineups for this match, both teams should be pretty close to full strength. DC will be without Jaime Moreno’s strained hamstring as he didn’t even make the trip. It also seems pretty unlikely Ben Olsen will play much if at all coming back from his hamstring problem and considering the field turf and long flight. However, DC does get back Luciano Emilio from suspension and should have everyone else available for this, the second of 3 games in 8 days.
Seattle has a slight worry in Cuban defensive midfielder Osvaldo Alonso who is recently back from a quad injury playing just 15 minutes off the subs bench in their last outing. Plus, Tyrone Marshall is questionable after an ugly tumble left him with a hobbled knee in their last match. Still, both are expected to be on the roster for this match, and even if they don’t play, former UMd midfielder Stephen King has played admirably for Alonso and former Houston defender Patrick Ianni played for the suspended Jhon Kennedy Hurtado in the last game and can surely cover for Marshall just as well.
I think Seattle goes with their best in this one as they will want to make a statement against one of the best teams in the history of the league. Seattle is making history this year, but DC United has been making history for 13 years, mostly at the expense of Sigi the Hutt, who would love nothing better than to equal United (and Chicago) with a title in their first year of existence. Plus, Seattle are getting back so many players from injury and suspension that they will want to get everybody back on the same page in order to put their recent struggles behind them.
So, Quatto will be likely to start Jaqua and Montero at forward even though LeToux has been outplaying both of them lately, Sigi has made it clear they are his preferred starting tandem. He has also moved Ljungberg out wide to keep Evans central which has helped balance the midfield better even though results haven’t been necessarily as good. Zakuani on the other side has been scary good too, but oddly enough not all that effective on the score-sheet.
Soehn, on the other hand, is a bit more tricky to figure out. The only other midweek league match he’s had this year, he trotted out quite a few bench players particularly in the defense. Ironically, DC was on a two game win streak back then which had just vaulted the team into the Eastern conference lead as well. But, with a midweek road match in KC, Soehn tinkered and rested some guys leading to a tepid tie in KC and it was over a month before the team won again against NY, which was the start of this current two game win streak. So, it will be interesting to see how he handles it this time.
Anyway in that previous midweek game in KC, Greg Janicki got only his second start of the year, while Avery John and Brandon Barklage got their only starts of the year at left back and center midfield respectively. So, Soehn may well be sorely tempted to make as many subs again for Seattle especially considering Namoff and Simms have had virtually no rest, while Burch and Janicki have had very little. However, given the previous results, and with Wicks so recently locking down the goalkeeper slot, it might not be a good idea to trot out a whole new defense in front of him after only one practice and a long travel day.
Offensively, there’s precious little reason to rest people either. Gomez has had plenty of rest and is just coming into his best form with that spectacular free kick winner in the last game. Emilio is obviously rested too. It seems unlikely any of the young players like Pontius, Wallace, Jacobson and certainly not Quaranta will want to sit the bench either. Nor is it the best time to introduce young or new players with very little experience into a match at the very rowdy Qwest field.
So, with all those things in mind, I suspect Soehn plays his veterans for the most part, and only saves the young guys for the Saturday swing into Colorado where the altitude maybe hampers older players a bit, but the placid crowd at the Dick won’t intimidate the youngsters at all.
Seattle is at its best with Ljungberg and Zakuani creating havoc out wide pulling apart teams for Jaqua and Montero or LeToux to exploit the holes in the middle. DC has been very good at shutting down outside threats lately, but must be able to do that while still getting their wide guys forward themselves. If DC wingers get pinned back, it will be a tough match to win. If it goes the other way, United has a good shot at it as long as Keller doesn’t pull off another magic act.
This is defiantly going to be the best match of the weekend. Both teams are extremely evenly matched. Hurtado against Emilio, Ljungberg against Fred, Pontius against Zakuani, Gomez against Alonso, Montero against Jakovic, etc. etc. With Seattle at home and Keller in the nets, you have to favor the Sounders in front of that raucous crowd, especially given DC’s relatively weak road form overall. But DC has the experience and the weapons to surprise Seattle if they manage to put it all together.
It’s too bad this road swing couldn’t be against some easier teams though. Coming off a resounding win over Chicago to take the lead in the East, now is a perfect time to extend that lead considering Chicago, KC, and NE are all off for the next two weeks with Superliga, and Toronto doesn’t play this week either. It sure is nice to not have to worry about that idiotic tournament, and it does take some of the pressure off staying in the lead when you know most of the teams near the top will not be collecting points. Only the Crew might creep closer IF they win in Dallas this weekend and DC doesn’t pick up points this week.
On the other hand, if DC handles this Qwest it would be a huge boost for them going forward. DC just feels like they are right on the edge of becoming consistently good. They’ve shown the resiliency to pull off results, the skill to dominate for long stretches, and more recently, the commitment to shutting down opponents. The Chicago win had to boost the confidence level, but at the end of the day, that’s just a good win at home. Beating Seattle on the road is a much bigger statement and might lead to another pile of points in Colorado and a decisive lead in the East.
It’s a tall order for sure, but this would definitely be a good time to show an upstart expansion side what a flagship franchise, with a trophy for nearly every year of existence, can do when they put their minds to it.