D.C. United's trip west to face the Seattle Sounders is an odd type of game. On one hand, we're talking about two teams very much in the running for the Supporters Shield and who - for very different reasons - see themselves as legitimate contenders in 2015. On the other hand, United has just 5 goals in their last 6 games against MLS sides and just crashed out of the Open Cup in embarrassing fashion. Seattle, meanwhile, has given up 10 goals in 4 games and are without enough starters that they could form a band.
Nonetheless, both teams have a mindset that they can beat anyone, even if it requires major changes. United has been playing two different starting elevens depending on whether it's the weekend or a weeknight for two weeks, while Seattle has changed their playing mentality. It may not be both teams playing at their very best against each other, but you can expect both sides to pour everything they have into this one.
Key player: Fabian Espindola
With the number of players Seattle is missing in their attack and their poor defensive form of late, it seems like a safe bet that they'll be focused on keeping a clean sheet first and foremost. That focus might become more pronounced if Osvaldo Alonso can't start the match, but in either case the Sounders are going to be more conservative than their reputation suggests.
For United that means Espindola needs to bring his A game tonight. He can't do it alone, of course, but on the road and at the end of a preposterous run of games, big-time players are leaned on more than the rest of the team. This one sets up well for Espindola, too, if he drifts wide to overload Seattle's left side. Normally Espindola has a preference for the other flank, but there will likely be a lack of experience at both left back and left midfield for Seattle tonight.
Espindola can get out there and use Nick DeLeon as his assistant, and from there he can look to create for the clever runs of Chris Rolfe and Luis Silva as well as go to goal himself. Lately, United has been guilty of forcing things a bit on the offensive end, so we also need to see Espindola lead by example and use his teammates rather than going for the game-changing play during every other attack. With United's likely starting lineup, there's going to be enough skill on the field that no one has to win the game all by themselves.
Key question: What's the bigger problem for an MLS team: Cross-country on short rest or missing 4-5 starters?
Both of these teams have a significant obstacle tonight. United's schedule has been designed by some sort of monster who hates soccer players, while the Sounders are dealing with the downside of having 3 designated players. We're going to see two teams battling each other as well as battling their current circumstances, which should be fascinating. It's not an ideal time for a potentially critical Supporters Shield game to take place, but that's life sometimes.
For United, the emphasis in the locker room should be less about the hard schedule and more on two points: First, this is a wonderful time to play Seattle if your goal is getting 3 points. Second, a win on the Pacific coast would be a great way to wash away the bitter taste of losing to a 10-man, struggling Philadelphia Union side. On the other hand, Seattle getting a win over the top side in MLS while so short-handed would be the perfect cure for what ails them.
Match date/time: Friday 7/3, 11:00pm Eastern
Venue: CenturyLink Field (Seattle, WA)
TV: UniMas (Spanish), Univision Deportes (Spanish)
Online: MLS Live (blacked out in the DC area and Seattle), Univision Deportes En Vivo (Spanish)
Check back in two hours for our gamethread.