Mauro Rosales and the Seattle Sounders may not be at their absolute best today, but they are still going to provide a huge challenge for D.C. United.
DC United's relationship with the Seattle Sounders is strange to say the least. There's the fact that the two fanbases got off on the wrong foot (to put it lightly) and fast became bitter rivals despite being about as far apart as two MLS clubs can be geographically. Until United's 2-1 win back in early May, neither team had ever won a home game in the series. Seattle has shown a knack for one-goal wins at RFK - most involving a very late winning goal - while United has scored three goals on both visits to
Qwest CenturyLink Field. I still struggle to believe that DC's 3-2 win last season in Seattle happened; how could it have? We had only 21 goals all season! It had to be some sort of shared hallucination.
Throw in the Josh Wicks stomp on Fredy Montero, the bottle thrown at Wicks during DC's trip to Seattle in their expansion season, and you have what is probably our most bizarre dynamic with another MLS team. However, things appear to have cooled off. Seattle spent last season trying to win things; United was hardly on their radar screen as a result.
That said, there is reason to believe that these teams will again serve up an entertaining match. Both sides prefer to keep the ball on the ground, attacking with speed and intelligent movement; this will not look like your typical Houston-New England long ball bonanza. Both teams feature electrifying right wingers, dangerous forwards that are also accused of diving, and there's also the likely battle of wits between Dwayne De Rosario and Osvaldo Alonso, both MLS Best XI candidates at their respective positions.
Like most clubs that have managed success in MLS while also involved in the CONCACAF Champions League, Seattle's lineup is a bit tricky to predict. The formation, however, will almost certainly be a 4132:
Schmid rested numerous central midfielders for Seattle's successful trip to face Herediano in CCL play, but his decision was forced by injuries. With Erik Friberg questionable and Servando Carrasco suspended, Schmid is down to Brad Evans or Alvaro Fernandez out of a normally deep group. Sounder At Heart says Evans - the scorer of the goal that officially killed our playoff hopes in 2008 and 2009 - is the most likely starter. Considering that Fernandez just went 90 minutes in that role down in Costa Rica on Wednesday, I'm inclined to agree (there's also a tidbit in the above link about why the speed of Evans helps Seattle in keeping up when we counter, which is a fine point).
One very good piece of news for DC is that Jhon Kennedy Hurtado will miss the game due to suspension after being red carded for...well, not very much of anything, really. It's a tough break for Seattle in a game where they could really use his speed. Instead, Schmid will probably call on Patrick Ianni over Zach Scott. This is where United should look to break through; Ianni is no slouch, but his decision-making can be a bit slow and his anticipation is sometimes lacking. If Charlie Davies is moving intelligently like he did against Chivas USA and is paired with a hopefully fit Josh Wolff, Ianni will have some very complicated decisions to make, especially considering the potential for Wolff to drop underneath with De Ro bursting forward.
Left midfield is more or less a straight-up choice for Schmid between Fernandez and Lamar Neagle, who have been rotating there throughout the summer. As I mentioned earlier, Fernandez is coming off a 90 minute effort in midweek; Neagle played 83 minutes in the same match. Seattle could use youngsters David Estrada or Michael Tetteh there, but that would be as likely as Ben Olsen starting Conor Shanosky the next time Clyde Simms needs a rest. I expect a good showing from Andy Najar as a result of Seattle having no well-rested, realistic option on the left.
At forward, Montero has been partnered by a constantly revolving group of forwards. Michael Fucito, Nate Jaqua, Pat Noonan, and Roger Levesque have all made numerous appearances up front. With Levesque only coming off in stoppage time against Herediano (having played a more taxing right midfield role in that game) and Jaqua going 73 minutes, it would seem that Fucito and Noonan are the more likely players in line for a start. The edge probably goes to Fucito, who is a livewire, bundle-of-energy type. If our defenders drop off of Fucito or take a reactive approach rather than a proactive one, we could have real problems.
Fucito isn't the only potential source of trouble for United defensively. Mauro Rosales has been sensational since Schmid began using him as a full-time right midfielder (Rosales can play other positions, but he's clearly at home on the right). Many MLS wingers either always cut inside or always try to get wide and hook in crosses; Rosales is adept at both, which presents a real problem for Daniel Woolard. Santino Quaranta is the key here; if he can block off Rosales as an option early in Seattle's attacks, DC will be able to restrict the most consistent threat the Sounders have. Quaranta always gives a proper effort, but here he'll have to match his work rate with anticipation and focus.
Speaking of focus, it's worth noting that Montero seemed quite into Seattle's game against Herediano. It's not just that he scored both Sounders goals; Montero was "on" Wednesday night. An engaged Montero is far more dangerous than the listless, disinterested Montero that shows up seemingly at random. If Montero is up for this one - a possibility lowered thanks to Herediano's highly physical approach to coping with him in the CCL - the Sounders are capable of putting together one of MLS's best attacks. If he's burned out from the travel and getting kicked and pushed all the time, the Sounders will be forced to rely more heavily on their wingers.
Going forward, it will be very important to maintain or improve upon the intelligent movement shown against Chivas USA. Not only will this serve to confound Ianni and the rest of a Seattle back four that overachieves at times, but it will also give more options for De Ro. United will need to provide De Rosario with the chance to play one- and two-touch soccer; otherwise, both Alonso and Evans will leave De Ro without the necessary space to do much of anything. It's not about De Ro's skill here - there are no doubts in that department - as much as it is providing him with choices so that the ball moves quickly in and out of the center of the field.
It will also be important for Quaranta to avoid the temptation to drift inside too often when we have the ball. Stretching Seattle out will leave bigger gaps for Davies to exploit, while playing narrow will allow Alonso and Evans to essentially take another player out of our attacks. Either Tino or Najar will need to show a willingness to get around his opposing outside back and put in a cross or two, just to keep the Sounders honest. Otherwise, the central areas are going to be too clogged to take advantage of Ianni. Finally, there's also the fact that Seattle is going to be a bit tired from their packed schedule, and a team that stretches you out requires more energy to defend than a team that stays narrow.
Overall, this is likely the best game of the week in MLS in terms of quality of play, the pace of the game, and the chances that both teams should create. Against a team that has logged a lot of minutes over the past few months, it is actually wise for the Black-and-Red to play this game on the front foot. The standings should not inform our approach to this game. Instead, United should put Seattle's heavy legs and not-first-choice center back to the sternest test we can. Trying to grind this one out 1-0 would be a mistake.