For the first time ever, D.C. United will face a struggling Seattle Sounders side. Seattle is on their worst prolonged run of form since joining MLS. They're only one point ahead of the Houston Dynamo (who have already changed coaches) and the Chicago Fire. They have scored a mere 11 goals in 12 games. They are currently on their second three-game losing streak of the 2016 season. And to make matters worse, this is not just a 2016 problem:
Last night was #Sounders 34th match since Red Card Wedding. They are 12-17-5 -7 GD in MLS matches (includes playoffs) since that hideous day— Dave Clark (@bedirthan) May 30, 2016
The Sounders aren't just going to blindly hope that their current group can coalesce into something more effective. There are strong signs that they're going to pay a lot of money for Boca Juniors playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro in the near future (though that might not be a sure thing), and there's also talk of adding a player that will require the use of TAM (to keep this brief, basically the rough equivalent of a DCU-style Designated Player). In other words, playing them now is probably a lot better than playing them in the near future.
It's been strange to watch Seattle, who have more talent than their record indicates. Unfortunately, it appears that losing Obafemi Martins during the preseason was even more of a blow than anyone expected. It's not just the sheer fact that he was their best player (along with being in the top three or four across all of MLS). It's that he was the rug that tied the room together, man. The other parts on offense don't really connect, and an inability to turn chances into goals has robbed the Sounders of confidence.
Sigi Schmid built his team around the idea of a 433, and even with Martins gone he's mostly stuck to it. It's not a rigid system, though, and at times it has looked more like a 4231 or even a 442 (which means Clint Dempsey has wandered higher up than the wide men, basically). Schmid has not been big on a specific attacking shape since moving to Seattle - at one point his team succeeded with what was referred to as an "amoeba" formation - but in the past couple weeks things have become a bit more structured. Against New England, Seattle stuck with a 433 featuring two holding midfielders underneath Andreas Ivanschitz (and later Cristian Roldan) to such an extent that wide forwards Aaron Kovar and Herculez Gomez didn't even switch wings.
On the road and in desperate need of results, it wouldn't surprise me to see that more rigid approach repeated tomorrow night. Seattle has to stop the bleeding right now, and they're probably not going to do it with swashbuckling attacking play. Rotation after Saturday's game on New England's turf is a distinct possibility, but the 433 is almost certainly going to be in place once again:
Stefan Frei had a career year in 2015, but that hasn't carried over to this season. That's not to say he has been bad, or even mediocre, but he's not keeping the Sounders in games the way he was last season. As was touched on before, confidence is a major factor here. With Seattle's attack producing less than one goal per game, Frei is likely feeling the pressure of having to be perfect. He has no specific flaw in his game to focus on; rather, United just needs to make sure he's busy all game long. This is not the goalkeeper who looked nearly unbeatable at times last year.
At right back, Tyrone Mears - who last season scored his only goal in roughly 5 years of soccer to down United in Seattle - is a sure starter under normal circumstances. However, at 33 it may be tempting for Schmid to give him a rest, even with the two week break that will follow this game. If Mears is given the night off, Jamaican fullback Oniel Fisher seems highly likely to get the nod in his stead. Fisher managed 9 starts as a rookie last year, but he hasn't played a minute in MLS since picking up a red card in the season opener this year.
Central defense looked like it was going to be a significant problem for Seattle due to injuries, but at least half of the issue has cleared up. Brad Evans had a close-range Kei Kamara shot slam off of his head in New England and was subbed off looking very groggy, but he has somehow passed the concussion protocol in what feels like record time.
Evans will get the start, then, but the issue of who will partner him is unclear. Chad Marshall is one of MLS's best defenders, but he's listed as questionable with a hamstring strain. He did make the trip to the Atlantic coast, but he was not in the gameday 18 to play the Revs. It seems safe to assume he'll have to pass a pre-game fitness test to suit up against the Black-and-Red. If Marshall can't go, either veteran Zach Scott or rookie Tony Alfaro will step in.
Scott has been erratic this year, but he's tough as nails and plays a very physical game. Alfaro, who came on for Evans in New England, looked pretty decent and brought some unexpected comfort with the ball at his feet. If Seattle wants to slow the game down, an Evans-Alfaro pairing might allow them to retain possession more than having Scott - who tends to want to be rid of the ball ASAP - in the game.
At left back, Joevin Jones has been a starter for most of this season since being brought over from the Chicago Fire in an offseason trade. However, with Seattle potentially needing to rotate Gomez out due to his age, there's a real chance that Jones ends up playing higher up the field. That would mean a spot for Dylan Remick, who played over 1600 minutes last year but has just two starts in 2016. Remick is positionally solid, but he doesn't offer too much going forward. Jones is, broadly speaking, the opposite: An attacking fullback who can be dangerous, but who can also struggle if you force him to stay home and defend.
In central midfield, Osvaldo Alonso and Erik Friberg are pretty much locks to start. Both are very reliable passers who do not give the ball away cheaply, and they're also very important for Seattle defensively. It will be pretty difficult for United to create between the lines, because both players are extremely smart (on top of having excellent work rates). Defensively, United needs to look out for early balls over the top from these two, especially since Seattle isn't creating much else these days.
Speaking of that, with Clint Dempsey playing for the US in the Copa America Centenario, the main creative threat for the Sounders is Ivanschitz. The Austrian veteran was a very good pick-up for Seattle last year even though he was often having to play on the left. He is arguably more of a natural in the center, but some less-than-stellar form combined with the struggles of the rest of the attack have dulled his influence. Still, Ivanschitz is a very skillful player that United will need to shut down via constant pressure. He's also not bad at getting into scoring positions, so United's double pivot will be tested in terms of tracking him off the ball.
Up front, Kovar - one of Seattle's four Homegrown players - will likely start as the right forward, particularly after a well-taken goal on the weekend. Kovar is very left-footed, meaning that his object on the right side is to cut in and shoot or deliver outswinging crosses. The Black-and-Red can effectively contain Kovar by guiding him wide, but that has occasionally proved to be difficult for the left half of United's defense.
Jordan Morris will lead the line for Seattle, and while he's cooled off after a goalscoring outburst, he is still someone to worry about. With Steve Birnbaum out, United is facing a very fast striker without their fastest center back. Morris is a bit one-note at this stage in his career, and it wouldn't surprise me to see Seattle trying desperately to play him through on the ground or to clip the ball over the top for Morris to chase down. United should consider dropping their line off to prevent this, and Bill Hamid will need to be very attentive if and when the Sounders catch DC stepping too high.
On the left, we've already touched on Jones moving up. Gomez started against the Revs on Saturday, but at 34 it seems unlikely (though not impossible) that he'll get a second straight start. Jones will offer speed that United can't really combat directly, so Sean Franklin will need to be very intelligent with his positioning and will need to be very alert when Seattle is in possession. If Gomez gets the nod, Franklin will have the speed advantage, but will have to be wary of Gomez's off the ball movement.
Off the bench, Seattle doesn't have a lot in terms of attacking options. Cristian Roldan will probably step in at some point for Ivanschitz or Friberg. Roldan played as an attacking midfielder in New England when he subbed on, but at this point he still looks like more of a #8 (or even a #6) who retains possession rather than a consistent creator. Darwin Jones, another Seattle academy product, is probably going to see some time on the left. If Seattle is losing, don't be surprised if he comes on for Remick and goes up front (with Joevin Jones moving back). Gomez, if he doesn't start, is probably a lock to enter the game as a wide forward.