There are several reasons why D.C. United might feel like the stakes are high in tonight's game against the Seattle Sounders. It's strange to say that about a mid-season game between two teams that have more losses than wins, but in both cases this game carries some significant meaning. United, for example, could find themselves heading into the Copa America Centenario break in 3rd place in the East with a win (and with a Philly loss tonight, they'd be one point out of first). That result would also - finally - give the Black-and-Red their first winning streak of 2016.
Seattle, meanwhile, is feeling intense pressure. This is a club and a fanbase that expects to contend for the Supporters Shield and, after watching their bitter rivals from Portland lift MLS Cup last year, the demands are as high as ever. It's a strange sight indeed to see Seattle with the 18th best record in MLS (and 7 points outside the playoff places!), but here we are. The Sounders are sure to spend on big-time replacements when the transfer window opens, but they're in a position where they need to start collecting points immediately. Facing a team that hasn't beaten them in five years might just be the perfect remedy.
Key Player: Fabian Espindola
Seattle may be struggling, but it's not because of their defense. The Sounders are a tough group to break down, and they may have Chad Marshall back from a hamstring strain for tonight's game. Between a well-drilled back four, a solid goalkeeper in Stefan Frei, and two very good defensive midfielders in Osvaldo Alonso and Erik Friberg, Seattle still has a chance to make something out of a bad season thanks in large part to a defense that keeps them in every game.
Last week in Kansas City, Fabian Espindola and Luciano Acosta had to feed on scraps due to Sporting's pressure making it very difficult for United to ever find them in useful positions. It was hard to judge whether their partnership has improved with time; tonight, we're going to find out. Espindola did show less of a penchant for going it alone in KC, with no attacks ending in hopeless 35 yard shots or attempted killer balls that never had a chance of success.
That's good news for a team that doesn't have a single player that can create goals out of nothing. If United's attack is going to have success, they have to be working as a group at all times. With the players that will likely start tonight's game, that means Espindola needs to be available as an option in central positions more regularly than he normally is. His best game of the season was against Vancouver, and that was a match in which he focused on a) contributing to attacking moves that get closer to goal before the risk of a shot or a deadly pass is taken and b) being present in central positions at the end of attacking moves.
If we see that Espindola, United has every chance of breaking down an obstinate Seattle defense. With the Sounders struggling mightily to score goals, it might only take one tonight, but that goal might not come without Espindola reconciling his own unique style with what the Black-and-Red need from him.
Location: Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium (Washington, DC)
Kick-off time: 8:00pm Eastern
Available TV: NewsChannel 8 and regional affiliates (check the link for the over-the-air alternate channel in your area)
Available streaming: MLS Live for those outside the blackout radius
For listings in other countries, check out LiveSoccerTV.com.
Our gamethread will be posted an hour before kickoff.