Things are bad again for D.C. United. Our brief boost in confidence after a 3-1-1 streak in all competitions was turned into more wailing and gnashing of teeth as the Vancouver Whitecaps successfully underlined our in ability to finish by creating little yet winning 1-0 on a poor penalty kick call. Between the toothless nature of our attack and the lack of depth leaving Ben Olsen with few fresh options to turn to after a midweek game left everyone around the club feeling helpless.
I bring up the lack of Aces - or any face card, really - up Benny's sleeve because the Black-and-Red now face the longest road trip of the season, which will be played on turf and in front of the biggest crowd to watch United all year. The Seattle Sounders, who despite their odious full name are actually a soccer team playing soccer in a soccer league, may not be one of MLS's elite clubs right now, but they've only lost one home game this season and it was the season opener against the high-flying Montreal Impact. In other words, this is not the best fixture for United at the moment.
Seattle has had a strange season. They went winless in their first five MLS matches, but to be blunt were far more concerned with the CONCACAF Champions League at the time (where they knocked off Mexican champions Tigres over two legs before falling to Santos Laguna in the semifinals). Since April 13th, though, they've gone 6-2-2, but the two losses were 4-0 against the Galaxy and a 2-0 scoreline at Real Salt Lake that flattered the Sounders. While they've rung up 11 goals in their last three home fixtures, they still only have 19 goals on the season (meaning they have just 8 goals in the other 11 games they've played).
What's happening here? Doesn't this team have a forward pairing featuring a national team regular partnered with a Premier League/Serie A veteran? Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins were supposed to be a terrifying combination, but as of today they haven't scored while paired together. While time to train together has been sparse, there are questions about playing two guys who are used to leading the line as a pairing. The coordination isn't there yet, and there have been times where Seattle has been better off with one star out and Lamar Neagle starting up front instead.
It's not just about the front line, though. A major reason for the inconsistency is that Sigi Schmid has been rotating his team all season. This isn't some Juan Carlos Osorio-style foolishness; it's enforced. Seattle had four CCL matches back when everyone else was just starting to limber up. Brad Evans was busy pushing his way into serious USMNT contention. Mario Martinez was with Honduras for a while, and is now technically not even a Sounders player after his loan ended during negotiations to sign permanently (those talks, by the way, aren't going well). DeAndre Yedlin was playing with the USA under-20s in Turkey. Steve Zakuani has been hurt and/or ineffective. Most importantly, Osvaldo Alonso has been struggling with a quadriceps strain for weeks now.
Another issue for the Sounders is tactical: While they're tremendous at punishing teams that use a high line to play track-meet soccer (FC Dallas, 4-2) or long ball (San Jose Earthquakes, 4-0), they have shown that without Alonso they can't cope with teams that rely on possession and soccer IQ (previously mentioned losses to the Galaxy and RSL). And guess what? Alonso's out for this one.
That's great news for a team that, with all of our actually good attacking players on the field, can play a little bit (see: all Soccerplex games). We may lack finishing punch, but teams that keep the ball moving tend to put the Sounders on the back foot. That in turn shields the defense, which means scraping a goal via some good fortune - we're due after this weekend - could be enough to win 1-0. All our problems are solved?
Well, no. Dwayne De Rosario (hip flexor strain) and Nick DeLeon (ankle sprain) have both been confirmed as out for this game, meaning that our two most - only? - truly creative and skillful players will not be on the field. They say opportunity knocks once, but we're in the bathroom with digestive problems so we can't get the door.
Seattle's inconsistent selections and formation tweaks - Schmid has played a flat 442 a few times while trying to figure out how to play without Alonso - make them a bit difficult to predict, but I would imagine he'll field a heavily attacking side knowing that United is bad, lacking our idea men, and coming off a cross-country flight:
Yedlin's fitness was in question due to a shoulder sprain, but all signs point to him being ready to play. Seattle is fully aware that United's attack without De Ro and Amish Sisqo is the least menacing one they'll see in 2013, so any worries they have about Yedlin's actual defending will be more than covered by his attacking ability against a team that will likely be sitting deep and sending few people forward.
Schmid's alternatives if he prefers to rest Yedlin after his under-20 World Cup exertions are Evans or Zach Scott. Evans is probably needed in the midfield to add some thrust there, while Scott is an unnecessarily conservative option given the circumstances. Scott could step in at center back, where Jhon Kennedy Hurtado has not quite put a stranglehold on the job. It would be a surprise, but Seattle is playing on Saturday as well and Scott is a trusted semi-regular.
In the midfield, Alonso's holding role will go to the combative Servando Carrasco, who you probably know better as that dude straight male soccer fans everywhere are jealous of. Carrasco is a physical force and has reliable technique, but doesn't have Alonso's engine, soccer IQ, or range of passes. There's also the mental side of things for the rest of the team. Alonso is one of MLS's few talismanic players, and even if Carrasco played exactly like Alonso for the night, the Sounders would be a lesser team due to the psychological importance they place on having the Cuban-American on the field.
Ahead of Carrasco, we should see Evans in the #8 role (provided Yedlin is at right back). However, Evans is versatile enough that he could also figure at left midfield if Neagle is deployed further forward (either from the start or if a substitution forces a reshuffle). Using Evans elsewhere would bring either Shalrie Joseph or Andy Rose in, and each player is missing some of what makes Evans effective. Joseph doesn't have the engine nor the speed to replace the attacking runs of Evans. It's also worth noting that his poor form is mostly rooted in wanting to play too slowly; if he's on the field, United should be in his face at all times. Rose, on the other hand, is also not as fast as Evans and also must play a simpler game on the ball because he doesn't have the skill to create much. To his credit, he does try to get the ball off his feet quickly, but those passes tend not to be forward passes.
Neagle's presence on the wing is necessitated by his form. He's quite frankly not the best fit as a starter without Alonso on the field, because the Sounders need their wide men to pinch in and help a weakened central midfield. However, Neagle is in the form of his life, and you don't bench a player like that unless you have to. If Schmid wants to move him up front or save him for Vancouver on the weekend, Alex Caskey is the likely choice to step in. Caskey is less of an out-and-out winger and fits the bill in terms of playing a bit more narrowly, but is more of a support player than anything else. Martinez would have been a fantastic option for Seattle, but even if he were signed right now, he's with Honduras for the Gold Cup.
I mentioned earlier that playing a high line in Seattle is an invitation for disaster, and that's because the Sounders have the talent to feed their speedy forwards in a variety of ways. Much is made of how good Mauro Rosales is at crossing, and Yedlin is rapidly becoming as good a crossing right back as there is in MLS, but traditional aerial balls are only part of the story. Rosales is especially good at picking out the opportunity to curl a ball on the ground and in behind. It's not a traditional through ball, but it works the same way, as the target runs through a seam and onto the ball.
United's left-sided players need to make sure this sort of ball is hard to play, and the rest of the team needs to be on high alert to prevent (or at least slow) the runs from Johnson, Martins, and Neagle. We simply don't have the speed to compete in footraces, so anticipating the pass and picking the right angle - blocking off straight-line runs for Seattle - will be key. That also requires staying focused at all times, because Seattle doesn't have to get the ball deep into our end to make these chances. Being the quicker team in transition - mentally as well as physically - will be vital.
If Seattle does get further into our defensive third, they shift gears and try to work quick combinations at the top of the box. In instances like that, Johnson's strength with his back to goal compliments the playmaking skill of Rosales and the late runs of Evans very well. In situations like this, it's all about keeping track of your man and picking the right moment to try to win the ball. One mistimed step upfield is all it takes to turn what looks like a solid defense of an attack into a man in alone on goal.
In the midfield, United must find a way to relentlessly pressure centrally. Without Alonso, there isn't anyone that is willing and able to control the game, and we should be able to force a lot of turnovers with a combination of hard work and smart play. That's a tiny sliver of good news: Perry Kitchen and John Thorrington (plus Alain Rochat?) have provided what we need in this match.
We can slow the Seattle attack down significantly if they can't cycle the ball through the middle and/or are constantly trying to win it back from us instead of keeping the ball themselves. That means a lot less of the Sounders in transition, and a choppier game (benefiting what will be a skill-deprived visiting side). If we're going to spring a surprise here, our central midfield will be the platform of our success.
Going forward, it would be smart to look to our left wing when countering. Yedlin's overlaps will leave gaps, and he can be very rash in both his tackles and in his general decision-making. The presence of either the occasionally mistake-prone Hurtado or Scott - who is more of an emergency defender than someone who can verbally help Yedlin avoid these mistakes - means that this side of the field is the weaker one defensively.
Djimi Traore and Leo Gonzalez have a good understanding on the other half of the field, and Gonzalez always seems to play well against us. With Sainey Nyassi (sigh) in line for a start on the right, we'd be far better to look for him over the top due to Gonzalez's lack of quickness. If Nyassi is facing Gonzalez, we won't be getting anywhere due to the Costa Rican's ability to stuff most attempts to dribble at him 1v1. Nyassi needs to learn to emphasize his speed rather than his stepovers, and this would be a good game to start on that.
Seattle has some good set piece targets in Traore, Johnson, and Evans (and potentially Joseph or Rose, for that matter), but for whatever reason they don't ever pose that big of a threat on corners and services into the box. However, as Tigres learned, half-clearances that aren't pressured correctly can be punished. United has been pretty suspect on set pieces against everyone, so even if Seattle isn't a Houston or KC-level threat, this is still something to worry about.
In terms of the psychology involved here, it's a classic case of a bad team having no good reason to be in the game. Sounders fans are expecting an easy win. United is four games into a Saturday-Wednesday pattern, and has come across the country, with little depth, and missing two of our best players. However, the longer this game stays competitive, the more United can start to think that maybe there's a result to be had, while the Sounders will start to wonder what's wrong with them that they can't beat MLS's bottom club. The crowds in Seattle are expectant, and when things don't go their way the resulting nervousness tends to manifest itself on the field.
Making this game tight and choppy is the best hope for tonight, if in large part because we don't have the option to engage Seattle in a straight-up game of soccer when you consider who we'll actually have available. If United can turn the expectations into a burden while enjoying the freedom that comes when no one expects you to do anything, then maybe...just maybe...the team we're putting on the field can shock the rest of MLS (and us, frankly).