There can't be any doubt that when the Seattle Sounders announced in late March that they'd be selling a 3-pack of tickets that included Manchester United, the last home game of the season, and the New York Red Bulls, it was the star power on the New York roster that was intended to be the attraction. But thanks to a combination of international callups, injuries, and suspensions, the Red Bulls team coming into the Cliff (yes, I'm calling it that) this week is nothing like the one they planned for. Even when the Gold Cup schedule began to solidify and it became increasingly likely that a US/Mexico final would mean the loss of Rafa Marquez, Juan Agudelo, and potentially Tim Ream from the Red Bull lineup, there was always superstar Thierry Henry to carry the promotional load. But thanks to some petulant behavior on the part of the Frenchman combined with a quick red-card trigger from Ricardo Salazar (something that Leo Gonzalez has some experience with), the Red Bulls forward and fan draw will be sitting this match out. With Luke Rodgers also likely out with foot problems, the star power is going to be generated by Canadian check-lover Dwayne de Rosario and some combination of role players Dane Richards and Joel Lindpere.
Of course, what's bad for name recognition is good for victory odds. The tension between competitiveness and getting butts in the seats is one that's never far away in a league as young as MLS, even for the successful franchises. The argument of the #TrophiesNotFriendlies movement is that winning is what ultimately will draw fans to the games. And pocketing a bunch of cash for a River Plate friendly in the middle of the season at the risk of injuries and fatigue affecting the playoff race is a bad bargain. This is true in mature leagues like MLB and the NBA where the attendance recipe is as simple as getting a good stadium or venue and winning. Counterarguers will point to Colorado as a team that just won a championship but can't consistently draw. But whatever problems Commerce City has drawing fans don't exist in Seattle, as we've shown over the last two years. The recipe here is that of a mature league. Just win, baby. And facing a New York Red Bulls team without Thierry Henry is more likely to result in a win than facing one with him.
It also helps that the Red Bulls are coming off of a very weird, very emotional, likely very draining draw against the Portland Timbers just 4 days ago at Jeld-Wen Field. You could understand the team just wanting to get out of the Northwest as quickly as possible and Hans Backe will likely have to put some energy and ingenuity into getting his team up for this match.
With so many players out, the Red Bulls lineup is difficult to predict. Ben Schneider of Once A Metro is anticipating that de Rosario and Richards take over the forward duties. DeRo is a natural attacking midfielder and Richards a natural speedy winger, so it wouldn't be a comfortable position for either, but both are dangerous attacking players and can't be underestimated. Lindpere is a reliable distributor and playmaker from the wing and Medhi Ballouchy and Teemu Tainio can fill out a capable midfield. The real problems for the Red Bulls are at the back, where Ream- and Marquez-sided holes are yawning. Stephen Keel has been error-prone thus far in his time filling in (including an own-goal in the Portland match) and could be a weak spot to exploit.
The loss of so many quality starters and the short rest means that New York will almost certainly get away from their typical possession game and instead play bunker-and-counter. It's a strategy that has worked well against the Sounders who seem to have difficulty getting the defense composed after a quick turnover. It's a strategy that works well on the fast Xbox Pitch turf. And it's a strategy that could work well with Dane Richards' blazing speed. That's an argument for the Sounders being careful about committing multiple men forward in the box or committing the backs too far forward on overlaps. They will need to always be mindful of New York's desire to break out quickly. On the plus side there shouldn't be any expectation of an aerial threat from the attackers as that's neither Richards nor de Rosario's game.
The Sounders roster will, as always, have some question marks. The free role given to Fredy Montero in the last match versus Toronto seems to have gotten more out of the Colombian star (though his tremendous free kick winner really had nothing to do with where he was positioned), so expect to see more of that. The small/small pairing with Mike Fucito wasn't clearly a success or failure. Whether it continues likely depends on how interested Sigi is in giving Nate Jaqua more time. Given the short rest, I'd guess there'd be some rotation there and we'll see Jaqua starting. Alvaro Fernandez fitness means that he should once again provide his presence on the left wing, where Lamar Neagle has declined a bit from his heady days as a supersub earlier in the season. Brad Evans is once again injured, which means a likely Erik Friberg start in the middle alongside Osvaldo Alonso, though given the counterattacking threat of New York I wouldn't be shocked to see the Carrasco/Alonso shutdown pairing again. The loss of Jhon Kennedy Hurtado to a red card won't matter much as he was likely on schedule to rotate out anyway. The interesting question is whether he's replaced by Patrick Ianni — who's been the third member of the rotation up to now — or Zach Scott, who made the 18 over Ianni last weekend and has been impressing as a center back in Reserve games.
- Alonso vs de Rosario - If the threat from the Red Bulls does indeed come on the counter, it will primarily be Alonso's job to shut it down and primarily de Rosario's job to make the cutting pass to Richards or generate a long shot. It will also be Alonso's responsibility to not trigger counters by giving away bad passes in the central midfield, which is something we've seen a lot more of this season than in the previous years. Friberg becomes a critical component here as well as he's primarily a forward-looking central midfielder but needs to maintain responsibility on the counter.
- Montero vs Keel - A patchwork Red Bulls back line and the lack of a solid defensive midfielder should open up more space for Montero, who still hasn't scored from the run of play in a long time. His new-fangled free role (which really just means he can get back down the field more so some fans can stop calling him lazy) should also make him harder to track and he may pop up in dangerous places. Keel's been error-prone, as noted, and I wouldn't be surprised if Seattle can earn a penalty off of him.
- Fernandez vs Jan Gunnar Solli - A return to the lineup for Fernandez should provide some good interplay with Montero. The Red Bulls' Norwegian right back is a solid defender and occasional offensive presence, but at 30 he may not have the recovery speed or the synchronization with his replacement center backs to prevent El Flaco from getting into space behind and delivering some potent crosses.