For about nine months bridging 2016 and 2017, D.C. United and the Seattle Sounders were kinda-sorta mirroring one another. Stylistically, their approaches were different, but last fall was a lot of fun for both teams. The Black-and-Red’s 6W-6D-2L, high-scoring run to a playoff spot in the East was more than matched by Seattle, who went 8W-4D-2L in their final 14 games. Both teams saw new acquisitions spark a sudden turnaround after frustrating seasons.
Seattle may have had more fun in the playoffs, going on to win MLS Cup, but the spring was cruel to both clubs. Up to May 20th, United’s woeful 3W-2D-6L start was rooted in goals becoming as rare as unicorns; Seattle’s 3W-4D-5L was only barely better, and given the relative pressure that comes from being the defending champions, the pressure seemed to be building.
The Sounders got their third win in that poor start on May 20th, and since then have gone 3W-2D-2L. It’s a modest improvement, but one that would feel spectacular compared to D.C.’s 2W-1D-5L record over the same span of time. Seattle’s playoff hopes have been buoyed in particular by the fact that they’ve taken ten points out of their last four games against Western Conference teams. That turnaround, plus the general harsh reality of any team on the coast flying to the opposite coast to play mid-week, means that Seattle will be strong favorites tomorrow despite a 1W-4D-4L record against the East.
However, the Sounders will not be fielding their best eleven, or even something close to it. Osvaldo Alonso is out with an MCL sprain. Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris are with the United States at the Gold Cup, as is fullback Oniel Fisher. Cristian Roldan and Jordy Delem are done with their part in that tournament, but it’s a quick turnaround to go back home and play another game (particularly for Delem, who played every minute for Martinique in the group stage).
In all likelihood, the 4231 Brian Schmetzer has preferred all year will be what United sees tomorrow night:
Stefan Frei, now a US citizen, has been ever-present for Seattle in league play this season. While he isn’t quite Bill Hamid or Andre Blake, he’s still a very steady goalkeeper who will be comfortable stepping up as a leader in this game, which is valuable given the absence of so many key players in the spine of the Sounders lineup.
Brad Evans has mostly been dealing with various injuries this year, playing just 303 minutes in total. However, he’s fit now, and with Fisher playing for Jamaica and Schmetzer indicating that a cautious approach will be used regarding new signing Kelvin Leerdam, the veteran - who has twice scored the goal that ended United’s pursuit of a playoff spot - looks like a sure starter tomorrow. Evans may not be as fast as he once was, but he’s still got USMNT caps as a right back, so United isn’t exactly getting off easy here.
Leerdam may come in off the bench (particularly if Evans is needed in central midfield, where the Sounders are short-handed), and we may also see Schmetzer look to get him 20 or so minutes just to get his feet wet. It’s hard to say much about him beyond the fact that he has nearly 200 appearances in the Dutch top flight at the age of 27. The Sounders see him as being just as fast as Joevin Jones, which means he’s really, really fast. Still, that lack of familiarity, and being in preseason shape coming from Europe, means he might be vulnerable if he subs into this one late.
At center back, it had looked like Chad Marshall was going to miss out with a foot injury. This article, in fact, was about to go out with Marshall assumed to be unavailable. However, our friends at Sounder at Heart put out an update on his status, and the news isn’t good for United. Marshall, the brains of Seattle’s defense, is probable.
That unleashes a cascade of changes, which we’ll get into as we go along. Marshall might not be winning defender of the year in 2017, but he’s still one of the best in MLS thanks to his ability to read the game and his strength in the air. It would have been a lot better for the goal-starved Black-and-Red if he had been stuck in the stands for this one.
Marshall will likely be partnered by Roman Torres. Normally this would be a sure thing, but there are rumors the Panamanian wants to leave Seattle in this window. However, until we hear otherwise, it’s best to assume he’ll start tomorrow. If a move is being worked out, or if Schmetzer determines that Torres isn’t mentally engaged enough to stay in the lineup, look for defensive all-rounder Gustav Svensson to deputize.
It seemed like Seattle was going to turn to 20 year old Cameroonian Nouhou Tolo at left back, but in the same link above that talks about Marshall, it appears that a shoulder injury has kept him out of training. With him in doubt, while Svensson has been freed up to play in the midfield (which in turn means Harry Shipp could play further forward), it looks like Jones will take up his normal role as Seattle’s left back. The Trinidad & Tobago international can be devastating when overlapping, and is one of the best attacking fullbacks in the whole league.
If Seattle opts to play him as a winger - which was rumored before this Marshall development and the resulting domino effect - they’ll be doing so with no real options at left back. Tony Alfaro is a center back who has filled in there a couple of times, while winger Aaron Kovar has spent a few minutes as a fullback in emergencies only.
Without Alonso, Seattle will most likely have to plug Roldan back into their lineup straight away rather than letting him have some recovery time after the Gold Cup. The 22 year old should be able to handle it, and he has the mental strength to cope without Alonso alongside him. That USMNT call-up was no accident, and if United lets Roldan have time on the ball, they’re going to be in for a long evening.
With Svensson likely partnering Roldan, look for the Swede to sit deep as a purely defensive #6. He’ll focus on being the main ball-winner, while Roldan is allowed to link play in the #8 role.
The Sounders roster doesn’t have too many attacking players even when fully loaded, and once you subtract Dempsey and Morris, you find a group that kind of picks itself. Surely Garth Lagerwey has big signings lined up, but that’s not going to be United’s problem. On the right wing, Kovar is likely going to start (unless Jones is used as a winger, which would push Shipp over to the right flank). Kovar will be inverted, meaning he’s going to cut in looking to get onto his left foot, and the main threat he provides is service via crosses and set pieces. If he can be kept pinned to the touchline, United should be able to keep him quiet.
On the left side, Shipp will probably drift inside to combine with Nicolas Lodeiro. This will serve to open up space for Jones on the overlap, and it also matches well with Lodeiro’s tendency to roam the field rather than staying central (which we’ll get to in a second). With two nominally wide players drifting inside for Seattle, United will probably have an overload to deal with centrally. It is worth noting that Shipp is listed as questionable with a broken wrist, opening up the possibility of Jones having to play here instead.
Lodeiro took MLS by storm immediately upon arrival, and though the Uruguayan hasn’t been quite so unstoppable in 2017, he’s still an extraordinarily dangerous playmaker (for example, he’s in MLS’s top 10 for key passes per 90). Lodeiro has the technical and creative gifts that you’d expect out of a #10 who starts for a team that is likely to qualify for the World Cup out of CONMEBOL. However, what sets him apart is his non-stop engine, and his tendency to float all over looking for pockets of space or weak points in the defense. Dealing with Lodeiro is very much a job that will end up involving the whole back four and the whole midfield.
That leaves us with Will Bruin, a notorious United killer during his time in Houston. I went through his career history to make sure, and the numbers are just as jaw-dropping as you’d expect:
Just looked through Will Bruin's history vs. #DCU. 10 goals, 2 assists in 15 appearances (9/2 in 13 league games + 1/0 in 2 playoff games)— Jason Anderson (@chestrockwell14) July 18, 2017
This is over 16% of his career goal haul, against a team he has only played in 6% of his total games. On top of this, consider his production with the Sounders this year: 6 goals and 1 assist in 803 minutes. Despite being brought in as a hard-working accent piece that could be trusted when a star or two is absent, Bruin has ended up pushing his way into the lineup even when Dempsey, Morris, and Lodeiro are all available.
Shutting Bruin down means rolling up your sleeves and getting ready for battle. Bruin isn’t fast or tall, but he’s strong and fearless, and he’s always looking to initiate physical contact. That’s not to say he’s entirely playing as a back-to-goal brawler; in fact, Bruin has been using his underrated movement off the ball to find space in the channels before laying the ball off to runners. Keeping Bruin quiet takes some real soccer IQ to go along with the need to be scrappier and tougher.
The Sounders are so short-handed that they will probably have room on the bench for S2 players like midfielder Zach Mathers and forward Seyi Adekoya. The latter is more likely to sub into this game, particularly with Seattle having a game on the weekend. Other options could include bringing Leerdam in and moving Evans...well, pretty much anywhere given his versatility. We may also see Alfaro play left back just to get Jones into the attack, because Seattle simply doesn’t have other wide players available.