They say history repeats itself, and for D.C. United and the Seattle Sounders that appears to be true. Last year - 370 days ago, to be exact - the two teams played on a simmering day in the District. Seattle had a record high temperature yesterday, and the forecast calls for temperatures in the mid-to-upper 80s at kickoff. The Sounders won 1-0 on a Chad Barrett goal, and the game ended up being decisive in the Supporters Shield race. Had United won 1-0 instead, they would have ended up with 62 points, 1 better than Seattle or LA in that scenario. This year? Hey, what do yo know? Both clubs are in the thick of the Shield race again.
Last year, Seattle came to DC without Clint Dempsey (international duty), Obafemi Martins (suspension), and DeAndre Yedlin (international duy) to face a United team missing a starting defender (Christian) and a starting attacker (Fabian Espindola). This time, Seattle's two seven-figure salaries and a key chance generator (Marco Pappa) are out again, with Dempsey again with the USMNT and Martins injured. United, meanwhile, will play without Sean Franklin and without Chris Pontius. Maybe the MLS schedule was written by Rust Cohle?
Let's hope not, because Seattle won that game at RFK last year (and Rust is such a pessimist anyway). It is worth noting that United held the Sounders to 5 shots on the day while attempting 15. Game states were a factor - as of the 39th minute goal, shots were 5-4 United - but the point is that Seattle gave DC a taste of what the Black-and-Red do so well: They came here and bent, but they didn't break. That's not normal for the Sounders, but without their big guns and facing a four-game losing streak across all competitions - in which they've conceded 10 goals - we might see Seattle's pragmatic side once again (though, with home field advantage, not as much as their 2014 trip to RFK).
I know I drew a parallel between Seattle's absences in this fixture, but to be honest they're actually going to be shorter this time around. Brad Evans is also out thanks to the Gold Cup, while Osvaldo Alonso's status is very much in the air as he returns from a hamstring strain. United has a weird knack for getting games against teams when they'll be without an important player or two, but today we're looking at four or five big-name starters missing out. It would be a shame to waste the opportunity.
While a shortage of attackers pushed Seattle into a 4231 for a few games, Barrett's return from injury has seen their normal 442 return:
In the back, the job of predicting the starters is not complicated. Stefan Frei will carry on in goal, as he's having a career year. The back four will see English veteran Tyrone Mears at right back, while Evans will be replaced at center back by Zach Scott. Scott's involvement means Seattle are far less good at playing out of the back, but Scott is a more dogged man-marker and is much better in the air. Dylan Remick has been rested lately, but he should return at left back after rookie Oneil Fisher started ahead of him against the Timbers last Sunday.
The midfield is trickier to call. Gonzalo Pineda will play his normal central midfield role; he's basically Seattle's Davy Arnaud, with more technique but less ground covered. Alonso will start alongside him if he's available, but that appears to be a toss-up at this point. If Alonso is only able to start on the bench (or is left out entirely), Micheal Azira - yes, that is spelled correctly - will take his spot. Alonso's reliable passing and his ability to make game-changing plays when the Sounders need him have been sorely missed during his injury; Azira is a decent player who works very hard, but he can't compare to the Cuban in terms of his skill with the ball or his ability to choose when to join the attack.
On the flanks, three players are vying for two spots. Interestingly, though, Sigi Schmid has usually prepared his team for playing with only one of Pappa or Lamar Neagle in the midfield; the opposite flank is usually manned by a more conservative option. In this case, Schmid has to choose just how attack-minded he wants his group to play by toggling between three options. Broadly speaking, Brazilian newcomer Thomas Bedinelli is the most attack-minded player in the group, Generation Adidas rookie Cristian Roldan is the middle option, and Andy Rose provides the most security.
My guess is that the most likely player of the trio to start is Rose, as Schmid is probably aware that Chris Rolfe is the most likely left midfielder for United tonight. That provides a dual benefit: Rose has a center back's size, and we've seen what powerful, physical wingers can do against Taylor Kemp this season. Despite being brought into MLS as a defensive midfielder, Rose has a nose for goal and enough speed to play this wide role without a problem.
If Roldan is used on the right, think of him as a bit like Nick DeLeon. Though he lacks DeLeon's physical strength and acceleration, he always makes himself an option for his teammates and uses the skill he showed as an NCAA playmaker to connect his passes reliably rather than be the creative hub. In these circumstances, Schmid may ask for him to be a little more of an inventor, which would be fascinating to see. In either case, United needs to make sure he never has a free moment on the ball; if he's connecting contested sideways passes or going backward, then United is doing things right.
That applies for Roldan on the left as well, while Thomas is a more unpredictable quantity if Schmid goes that way instead. He's only played 146 minutes since signing, but that could be an advantage. United likely has plenty of tape on Roldan from his play in college; it's unlikely they can say the same for Thomas. The 22 year old was loaned out to second division teams multiple times while playing for Flamengo, lowering the odds that Ben Olsen and his staff have much on him. If Schmid wants to roll the dice, he'll give the kid a start.
Up front, Barrett played an hour Sunday after missing all of June with a hamstring issue. It's highly likely that he was subbed off to make sure he didn't have a relapse, and in that case he probably is not yet 90 minutes it. Seattle will probably go with him for 75 minutes, but knowing Barrett that will mean a very physical, gritty 75. People have mocked Barrett's finishing ability for years, but the fact is that he's a useful target man, he presses defenders relentlessly, and he's good in the air. He produced 7 goals in 867 minutes last season, which is a pace that would have kept him near the Golden Boot race over 34 games. This year, his 3 goals in 366 minutes is actually an improvement in terms of goals per 90 minutes played.
However, the bigger threat is Neagle. Normally more of a winger, Neagle has speed to get in behind as well as the courage (not to mention ability) to turn some unexpected shooting opportunities into legitimate threats. When it comes to ideas for this Seattle eleven, Neagle's runs and audacity are nearly as important to the Sounders as Fabian Espindola is to United. That may nudge Schmid into starting Thomas; if he doesn't, Neagle will have to be Seattle's scheme-breaker.
Off the bench, look for plenty of youth and energy. Andy Craven - a draft pick Seattle signed to a Sounders 2 contract initially, but then signed to an MLS deal very recently - could be Barrett's replacement for the second straight game. Homegrown players like Victor Mansaray and Darwin Jones are also in the running for minutes, particularly if Schmid wants to move Neagle onto one flank or the other while maintaining the 442.
The non-starter out of Rose, Roldan, and Thomas seems almost certain to get in, and if Alonso only makes the bench I'd expect him to sub in as well (be it to help protect a lead, spark a comeback, or just to get some match fitness). If Seattle is winning, Schmid prefers to hold one sub until very late, and he has no issues with sending a fullback into a wide midfield role during stoppage time just to buzz around and prevent crosses.