The Seattle Sounders may be shorthanded, but the key to stopping them still involves dealing with defensive midfielder Osvaldo Alonso.
A big issue with MLS's switch to the unbalanced, conference-focused schedule is that D.C. United will only get one game against some Western rivals. Unlike many Eastern Conference clubs, United has some legitimate rivalries with clubs from out west. Our only match with MLS's 2nd most successful club, the LA Galaxy, has already come and gone. And now, only five games into the season, we'll have already played our other big western foe, the Seattle Sounders. Barring a run to the late stages of the US Open Cup, this will be our only shot at taking bragging rights in the "Washington Derby."
Things have not gone according to plan for Seattle thus far in 2012. Their dreams of CONCACAF glory - and the notoriety that would result from being the first MLS club to reach the Club World Cup - shuddered to a halt in Mexico, where Santos Laguna scored four second-half goals to turn a tight CCL quarterfinal into a rout.
The Sounders did not carry that defeat with them into MLS play, but they haven't exactly been brilliant either. While a 2-0 win over the Houston Dynamo is a fine result, and a 3-1 win over Toronto FC is par for the MLS course, the Sounders already have a home loss after last week's 1-0 defeat against the visiting San Jose Earthquakes. While Seattle fans will undoubtedly point to the goal coming from a dubious penalty kick, it should be noted that Chris Wondolowski wasted a couple of chances that he normally buries.
Objectively, I felt Seattle deserved to lose to a Quakes team that bridged a talent gap with simple stuff like hard work and focus. Frank Yallop's side played with discipline, speed (physical and mental), and got 11 players to buy into playing both sides of the ball. It was impressive, sure, but it wasn't rocket science. Ben Olsen will undoubtedly have noticed the success of a simple, well-executed gameplan against a Seattle team that hasn't quite started to fire on all cylinders.
While there are some injuries and selection issues for Seattle, they will stick with their preferred 4132:
There are several injury issues for Seattle contributing to an uncertain starting team. Starting at right back, United will likely see Zach Scott - a natural center back - instead of Swedish newcomer Adam Johansson, who is technically "questionable" but is in reality doubtful to play. Johansson adds more of an overlapping threat to the Seattle attack and is also generally more comfortable with the ball. Scott, on the other hand, is much more of a stay-at-home right back who tries to use his strength and size. Nick DeLeon should try to isolate Scott out along the touch line to force Scott to either tackle cleanly or give away free kicks.
Center back Jhon Kennedy Hurtado is another player unlikely to play due to injury, leaving Seattle a little short on agility and speed at center back. Patrick Ianni has recently pushed normal starter Jeff Parke to the bench, but if Hurtado does indeed miss out, those two will be the starters. What Seattle might gain with Parke's soccer IQ and positioning is mitigated by his lack of speed and, apparently, his indifferent recent form.
There has been plenty of talk about former United left back Marc Burch's return and his (rather tame) comments to the Seattle media. However, I give the slight edge at left back to Leo Gonzalez. Gonzalez offers less going forward, but is far stronger defending 1v1 - something he'll have to do a lot of with Danny Cruz charging forward and Andy Najar possibly available off the bench - and United knows better than anyone where Burch's weaknesses are. Sigi Schmid could try to play the "hyped-up player against his former club" card, but in Burch's case I think that would just end up with him trying too hard and making big mistakes. I know what I'd do if I were Schmid, but then I never would have gone out of my way to get Burch in the first place.
Attacking that spot depends on personnel. If Gonzalez gets the start, Cruz should be focused on getting in behind his defender rather than isolating him and looking to attack on the dribble. If it's Burch, however, the options open up. Burch is susceptible on the dribble due to his lack of agility and his tendency to dive into tackles, while he will also leave us big gaps to attack between himself and the rest of the back four.
Further forward, it looks like underrated box-to-box midfielder Brad Evans will be fit to play against United after missing a couple games with a hamstring injury. This would be a negative, as Evans is a dynamic player on both sides of the ball. In particular, his late runs into the box when Seattle attacks can cause plenty of havoc. He's also apparently the only Sounder that can convert penalty kicks (hopefully we don't test that theory).
If Evans can't play, Servando Carrasco - better known as Alex Morgan's very fortunate boyfriend - will probably get the call instead. Carrasco is more of a pure destroyer than Evans, and as such tends to sit too close to Osvaldo Alonso. Between that redundancy and his merely adequate technical ability, United would be better off if Evans misses out. Don't count on it, though.
At right midfield, Mauro Rosales is likely out, which robs Seattle of their most significant attacking player (yes, even more than Fredy Montero). Danish offseason signing Christian Sivebaek will probably deputize, though there is a chance we could see Roger Levesque instead. Sivebaek is a very direct, bustling player who actually reminds me of a taller version of our own likely starting right midfielder, Cruz. Ramiro Corrales struggled with Sivebaek in the opening stages of last week's 1-0 win for San Jose, but figured him out before too long. Daniel Woolard should look to deny Sivebaek the space needed to start running at the defense, because that appears to be his entire focus with the ball.
There has been some talk about Eddie Johnson's return to fitness giving him a start, but I strongly doubt that David Estrada and his 4 goals on the season will get benched at this point. There is, perhaps, the chance that Estrada is moved to right midfield with Johnson playing up top, but that seems like a stretch to me as well.
Estrada's game is not complicated; instead, his success is based on bringing an element to the Sounders that other players don't. Much like Luke Rodgers did for NYRB last season, Estrada stays busy on both sides of the ball and is always looking to get in behind the back four. No one will ever talk about his outstanding skill or creativity, but that's not his job. If he's stretching the United back four and making runs that the Sounders can pick out, we'll have problems with him. The key is to stay vigilant when Estrada tries to run into the gaps between defenders; generally speaking, he'll camp out on someone's back shoulder and look to get in behind when his marker is distracted.
Interestingly, MLS's decision to single out Brandon McDonald despite numerous more dangerous tackles (not limited to Alonso's careless knee to the head of Rafael Baca) will mean a return at center back for Dejan Jakovic. Jakovic's speed is enough that he'll be able to make recovery runs and possibly intervene if Estrada does get in behind. Obviously the best thing to do is to never allow him to make that kind of run in the first place, but it's nice to have that kind of speed in at center back against a team that relies more on speed than on size up front.
At the other end, United might have an easier time than expected with the Seattle central defense. Intriguingly, Seattle never seemed comfortable with San Jose target man/provocateur Steven Lenhart. Lenhart's abrasive, never-say-die approach might give Maicon Santos a path to success to focus on, with or without the (not-punished-by-MLS) embellishment in pursuit of penalty kicks. Their center backs also seemed to leave gaps when the Quakes could string together a few passes, so some patience in attack could result in openings down the middle. Specifically, United should look to attack the center backs with passes coming from wider positions or from deeper, so as to avoid Alonso.
In the midfield, United may also find themselves with an unusual advantage. Last week, United's wide midfielders did a great job of pinching in centrally when we didn't have the ball while also getting wide in the attack to stretch things out. Rosales and Alvaro Fernandez do a great job of this, but Sivebaek didn't make this transition very smoothly in defense. He gets back and works hard, but he doesn't position himself that well. If DeLeon - as well as Dwayne De Rosario - can make use of the gap that leaves, we could have a lot of chances to get after Scott at right back.
Seattle's attack is one of the best in MLS, and part of that is their ability to move the ball quickly in the midfield without being overly direct. A big factor in that department is Alonso, who is both the conduit that links the defense to the attack and the tempo-setter in the midfield. If United's forwards can cut off the passing lanes to Alonso, and if De Ro can apply pressure to force Alonso into backwards passes, United will have broken Seattle's rhythm.
On set pieces, Seattle is lacking their best taker in Rosales, but still has weapons in the box. Fernandez has a great record of getting free and scoring on set pieces, while guys like Ianni and Scott are athletic and aggressive enough to cause problems. Montero is probably the threat to shoot, but one never quite knows if the deadly Montero or the off-form Montero will turn up (that's why he hasn't made the big-money move to Europe yet). United should make sure not to give away soft fouls on the wings, particularly with Fernandez's shifty movements and propensity to hit the deck.
In the end, this is a good time to be playing the Sounders. Rosales gives them so much on both sides of the ball, and is the captain of the side as well. Meanwhile, the back four is unsettled, and we may see guys starting this game that are short of 100%. However, that is not to assume that this is an easy game. Any team with a Best XI quality player in Alonso - ignore last season's inexplicable Best XI that left him off - a player like Montero that has as much pure talent as anyone in MLS, and a World Cup semifinalist in his mid-20s in Fernandez is a dangerous opponent.