MLS's return to the field may feel like waking up from a fever dream - Costa Rica beat Italy? The return of the 352? Suarez bit someone again? All preposterous! - but it's true. D.C. United goes back to work tonight against the Seattle Sounders in a rare clash between the two conference leaders. It's a chance for the Black-and-Red to make a major statement after essentially shrugging their way out of the US Open Cup.
So you know the Sounders are top of the table, which means you probably know they're in good form. In this case, "good" doesn't cut it: Seattle has lost once in their last thirteen games in all competitions. Nine of those games were wins, and in six of those games they scored three or more goals. The one loss - a 5-0 drubbing at Gillette Stadium by the New England Revolution - was a classic example of a team having "one of those nights;" the Revs could do no wrong in front of goal, scoring twice via heavy deflection and generally having every odd bounce sit up perfectly for whatever they needed at the time.
Seattle's philosophy this season has been pretty simple. Sigi Schmid assembled a team full of attacking talent and has decided to bank on the collective goalscoring prowess of Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, Lamar Neagle, Marco Pappa, and Kenny Cooper to win games. The Sounders give up a goal per game, but it usually doesn't matter because they score a hair over two per game on average for themselves. This year's Seattle team lives and dies by their ability to put the ball in the back of the net.
That's why this may once again be an occasion where United is meeting a team at the perfect moment. It's happened all season, and fortunately we've seen DCU able to take advantage more often than not. Seattle will be without Dempsey (USMNT duty) as well as Martins, who is suspended for this game. Dempsey may be the bigger name, but it can be argued that Martins is the Sounders equivalent of Fabian Espindola. The Nigerian - somehow not deemed essential by a goal-shy Super Eagles side in Brazil - has eight goals and six assists on the year, and is the fulcrum of Seattle's attack.
Like I said, though, he's suspended, so both teams are going to play this one without their key attacking player. Seattle will have to change who they play through, just like United will. Throw in the fact that Seattle played 120 minutes in the Open Cup on turf - and not their normal home turf at CenturyLink Field, but the beat-up turf at Starfire Soccer Complex, a surface that Schmid didn't want to risk several regulars on - and is flying cross-country on that short rest, and you'd have to admit that this is an ideal moment to get the Sounders.
Seattle still has depth to field a pretty good team though. Longtime MLS observers have used Chad Barrett as a punchline for years due to his wasteful finishing, but the fact is that Barrett has turned 312 minutes of playing time in the league into three goals and an assist this season. He is certainly not as talented as Kenny Cooper, but in terms of form Schmid will likely have to look at his forward pairing for this one and choose between Cooper or Cam Weaver to partner Barrett rather than the expected "Cooper and somebody" thought process one would expect.
Unlike United - who I expect to see in more of a 4411 than a 442 without Espindola - Seattle will not be shifting out of their normal 442 to accommodate their absent players:
If Seattle hadn't played that Open Cup game, there would be no question marks here. As Dave Clark from Sounder at Heart told Ben yesterday, the Sounders are down to 21 available players to pick an 18-man gameday roster right now. There isn't excessive room for rotation, but that doesn't mean there won't be a few changes.
In the back, Jalil Anibaba only played 21 minutes in Seattle's penalty kick triumph over the Earthquakes. I'm not sure Schmid trusts him to the same degree that Frank Klopas did in Chicago, but if he wants to freshen up his team he has few other options in the back. Anibaba can play right back or center back, and I'd give him about a 45% chance of playing. Brad Evans could be moved into the midfield, and Zach Scott is about to turn 34 (making him a strong candidate for a rest).
In other circumstances, I'd be certain that Leo Gonzalez would be rested at left back. Unfortunately for him and Seattle, his natural back-up Dylan Remick is injured. Schmid has options - Scott, Evans, or even rookie Aaron Kovar are, in theory, able to fill in - but in all likelihood we'll see Gonzalez. This is actually bad news in my book, as United has never quite been able to solve Gonzalez despite the fact that the Costa Rican is - by MLS outside back standards - slow both laterally and in terms of straight-line speed. Gonzalez tends to make up for this by reading the game at a high level and having an excellent sense of timing with his tackle attempts. Personally, I'd like to see United send Sean Franklin overlapping at him whenever possible and make it less of a 1v1 situation and more of a footrace.
I mentioned that Evans could step into the midfield, and it's a distinct possibility even though he played all 120 minutes on Tuesday. 31 year old Gonzalo Pineda could probably use a rest, and both Lamar Neagle and Marco Pappa played the full 120 minutes on Tuesday as well. If Anibaba comes in, Evans could end up alongside Osvaldo Alonso or at right midfield, with one of Pappa or Neagle on the left. It's not quite a toss-up, but it's not a possibility to ignore either.
In the attack, United will need to take advantage of the fatal flaw in Seattle's current formation. By playing a flatter midfield, Seattle has taken Alonso out of the spot he's best suited for - deep in central midfield - and filled the gap with...well, nothing, actually. This is why I'd advocate for a 4411 this week: Silva, if played truly underneath Eddie Johnson, will be in an area of the field where there is no ever-present Sounders player to shut him down. Either the center backs will have to step up, or the central midfielders will have to drop back. In both cases, Seattle's defensive structure is no longer ideal, which means openings for everyone else.
If Seattle is going to leave that area unguarded, we should take advantage. If Perry Kitchen and (we assume) Lewis Neal can keep Alonso and Pineda occupied, Silva should have plenty of room to operate. If he can come anywhere close to his performance against the Montreal Impact, we should be able to create plenty of chances.
I'd like to see United augment that with a reinvigorated Chris Rolfe, who since starting his career in DC has tailed off a bit. With Espindola out for over a month with the MCL sprain he picked up via Felipe's goonery, we can't simply hope for Silva to cover for Espindola's production by himself. The dynamic will be different since no United attacker will be drifting wide left - thus allowing Rolfe to move inside to great effect - but that shouldn't see Rolfe continue his recent plateau in form. Especially if Anibaba is at right back, Rolfe will have the soccer IQ advantage, and we need to see him out-foxing opponents more regularly.
Defensively, United is going to have to put in a top-notch performance even without Dempsey and Martins. Seattle has decided that Pappa's tendency to make absolutely horrible turnovers in the defensive third - the Sounders have conceded five goals directly from careless giveaways by Pappa - is worth what they're getting out of him going forward. Pappa's inventiveness on and off the ball are something of an X factor for Seattle; one minute he might provide a superb cross-field ball, and the next he'll go wide to isolate someone on the dribble. He's also a threat to score from long range. In other words, up to this point Seattle's gamble on him is paying off.
Franklin will need to attack Pappa regularly, as the former Chicago Fire star is not inclined to defend with anything approaching vigor. If Schmid decides to switch his wingers - which is to be expected during the course of the game - Christian should get the green light to attack instead. The best way to take Pappa out of a game is to make him defend.
Speaking of Pappa, I mentioned his penchant for awful, disastrous giveaways in the defensive third. These have all come following half-cleared corner kicks or free kicks, right as Seattle tries to break out on the counter. If Pappa picks up the ball in a central spot in this sort of situation, United should have someone sprinting at top speed to apply pressure. If we foul him, so be it. Selling out in this instance is worth the risk, because five goals is no longer a coincidence. Pappa is a huge liability in these situations, and not taking advantage would be foolish.
After that, United will want to put him on his right foot whenever possible; Pappa is almost comically left-footed. However, it needs to be taken into account that Pappa has some tricks he likes to use to get around this issue; he's used to teams selling out to give him only his right foot as an option. If United can apply pressure to Pappa every time he's on the ball, we can turn him into a back-pass machine. If we're inconsistent in that regard, he will eventually set himself up to do something with that deadly left.
On the other side, Neagle's speed and knack for getting into goalscoring positions are both significant threats. In fact, Neagle may be the player I'm most worried about in this game. It's not so much that he's spectacular at any one thing, but that he's good enough at most things that he always has an option. If you take away his ability to cut inside, he'll stay wide and look to cross. If you sell out to keep the ball on the other side of the field, he's very good at making back-post runs that evade detection. No matter which wing Neagle is on, United is going to have to be very sharp at individual defending as well as team-wide communication to keep his influence at a minimum.
Up top, the Sounders will be very busy through Barrett and Cooper. United has done well enough this season against forwards that are more about quantity than quality, but with Jeff Parke missing out due to his foot injury it's going to be a big test for Bobby Boswell's organizational ability. The Sounders don't have any particularly clever forwards available, but they make up for it by being active. United won't have many complicated problems to solve at the back, but they will have a ton of ordinary problems to deal with. One simple mistake could easily become a goal against.
Steve Birnbaum is coming off a disappointing showing against Colin Rolfe of the Rochester Rhinos, who broadly played a similar game to Barrett: Physical, active, not particularly skillful, and doggedly determined. If Birnbaum can't bring back the level we saw against Columbus and Montreal, this could be a tough game.
Another factor with the Sounders is the passing ability of Pineda, assuming he plays. The former Mexican international has made the Seattle central midfield a bit softer defensively, but he's made up for it by adding both consistency on the ball and an improved passing range. I'd stop short of calling him Seattle's playmaker, but he can pick out just about every variety of pass you can think of. If United gives him time on the ball, it's going to be a long 90 minutes. Without the normally abrasive Davy Arnaud, we're going to need to see a particularly active outing from Kitchen and Neal to minimize Pineda's time and space.
On set pieces, Seattle will always be a threat with Chad Marshall on the field. Pappa and Pineda are both capable of good service, and Seattle has plenty of targets. Marshall will probably draw Boswell as his marker, and after that we'll see guys like Cooper, Barrett - look for him flashing across goal to the near post - and Scott (if he plays) as second-tier threats. United has plenty of players capable of winning these battles in the box, but "capable" doesn't mean it gets done.
We need to see a gritty, determined effort in these individual battles partnered with smart goalkeeping from Bill Hamid. If Seattle isn't getting to the first ball, they'll look to create scrambles for guys like Barrett and Neagle, and that's where Hamid needs to be sharp. If he decides to leave his line, he has to either catch or punch every time.
At the other end, I actually have some optimism about creating from our own set pieces. Losing Espindola obviously hurts, but Seattle doesn't have the best set of players to defend their box. Marshall is elite in this department, and Scott/Anibaba will be good, but United's third or fourth targets - guys like Kitchen or Christian - should be able to get loose regularly. Their runs are the ones we should target. Make no mistake: With both teams missing their key attacking player, this could well be how the three points are won.