If you think D.C. United’s season has been a difficult one, what with all the away games, the problems between supporters groups and club, and the injuries to defensive starters, just be thankful the Black-and-Red don’t have the problems the Seattle Sounders are enduring in 2018. An unrelenting injury crisis all over the field has robbed them of both talent and continuity. Champions League obligations shortened their preseason. Vital players hit the “got old” wall all at the same time.
The result? The Western Conference’s representative in the last two MLS Cup finals is now a team that, in June, is finding a brutal reality wherever they look. I mean, here’s just one stray stat:
Harry Shipp is now tied for 2nd on the team in all competition goals with 1 goal— Josh Tee-Hee (@sea_soc) June 7, 2018
Brian Schmetzer’s team just can’t get it together right now, but there are a couple of glimmers of something other than bad news. Nicolas Lodeiro didn’t get selected to go to the World Cup with Uruguay, which is probably a bitter blow for him personally, but he’s fit and available to start tomorrow. Spanish winger Victor Rodriguez might not be fit enough to start, but he played his first 16 minutes of the season last week, and could boost the Sounders’ attack off the bench.
Seattle also more or less punted on the Open Cup, with Jordy Delem and Alex Roldan the only even moderately regular starters to play more than a handful of minutes. In other words, United’s extra day of rest isn’t really going to factor in as much of an advantage.
Schmetzer tried out a 541 a few weeks ago, but he’s since returned to the 4231 he’s shown a strong preference for since taking over from Sigi Schmid. That’s what we expect tomorrow:
It’s not Stefan Frei’s fault the season is going poorly, or really any of the defenders (save the occasional bizarre choice from Nouhou Tolo, who at least tries to make up for it with bottomless enthusiasm). Kelvin Leerdam had to play as a midfielder last week during a 2-0 loss at Real Salt Lake, but with Lodeiro back he’ll most likely play his natural position. If you’ll recall last year’s 4-3 loss in Seattle, Leerdam’s attacking play from right back after entering as a sub is what really turned the game.
At center back, Kim Kee-Hee may end up holding onto the starting job even after Roman Torres (one of Seattle’s World Cup absentees, along with defensive midfielder Gustav Svensson). The South Korea international brings some mobility that isn’t there any more for Torres, and he seems to be a good partner for easily Seattle’s best player this season, Chad Marshall.
The absence of Svensson has really hurt Seattle’s midfield, where the rapidly aging (and, for this game, out injured) Osvaldo Alonso’s fall from elite has been a glaring issue all year. Svensson has done a good job filling in for the Cuban, but with him out, Seattle has a really difficult time building out of the back (side note: Benny, engage the high press!). Delem is the most likely starter in the #6 role, but his passing range is limited and his touch is suspect. Delem is more of a utility player than a natural here, and United should key on him as the most likely Sounders player to cough the ball up.
His partner should be Cristian Roldan, who has been trying his best to be the glue in Seattle’s midfield. Roldan is a talented player who brings just about everything you’d want to the table for a #8, but he hasn’t quite been good enough to overcome the troubles surrounding him. Nonetheless, United needs to play quickly through the midfield or risk Roldan snuffing out a lot of their attacks. They also need to find a way to keep him disconnected from Lodeiro and Dempsey, as that’s a sure way to defuse this attack.
Lodeiro could slot into a couple different positions, but right now the safe expectation it to see him in his familiar right-sided playmaker role. Lodeiro is Seattle’s #10, but he’s also their right winger, and he has more positional freedom than anyone else on the team. It’s rare to see in MLS, but he gets away with it by being one of the hardest-working players in the league. If you find yourself thinking “wow, Lodeiro’s getting a lot of touches,” then this game will not be going well for United.
Clint Dempsey is still Clint Dempsey between the ears, and he still has plenty of tricks with the ball at his feet. The issue is that he’s just not as quick over the first few steps as he used to be, and what used to be a tiny amount of separation from defenders is now no separation. That said, this is still Dempsey, and the moment United relaxes against him is the moment he scores. D.C. needs to take special care to make sure that he’s marked tightly on set pieces, because despite not being big or strong, he’s scored a ton of headed goals by simply getting to the right place at the right time.
On the left, Alex Roldan has been the starter for a while due to injuries, but Harry Shipp’s recent play may get the former Chicago Fire and Montreal Impact man a start instead. On the other hand, much of the discussion of Shipp in Seattle is about how listless he’s been. It’s been a problematic position since the moment Jordan Morris tore his ACL, and Schmetzer doesn’t have any options that bring what his team sorely needs (speed). The situation has been desperate enough that Waylon Francis has played some as a winger just to add speed, but Francis is a long, long way from being Joevin Jones.
Up top, Will Bruin’s history against United needs no refresher course. In a league where several teams have a “United killer,” Bruin remains the best example. He’s the same player he ever was: brave, very physical, always willing to put in the work, and you have to expect that his finishing will just be sharper against D.C. than it normally is, for reasons that can’t be quantified. If United is forcing him to do his own playmaking, they can take him out of the game, but if Seattle is putting crosses in behind the back four on a consistent basis, this one might go south.
Off the bench, Rodriguez and Shipp (or the younger Roldan) feel like sure bets to come in as subs. Seattle also has Lamar Neagle to call on if they need an attacker, though he has struggled enough that even a team as desperate for better play in the attack hasn’t given him much time. Someone like homegrown midfielder Henry Wingo could appear as well, which would boost Seattle’s athleticism, but realistically Schmetzer’s one ace to play is Rodriguez.