CARSON, CA - SEPTEMBER 17: Eric Hassli #29 of the Vancouver Whitecaps holds off a challenge from Chris Birchall #8 of the Los Angeles Galaxy in the first half during the MLS match at The Home Depot Center on September 17, 2011 in Carson, California. The Galaxy defeated the Whitecaps 3-0. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
Almost two months ago, I wrote about the fact that the Sounders were one of only two teams in the league (along with FC Dallas) who were still in the running for all five potential trophies. Remarkably — despite a grueling schedule both in the league and in cup play — Seattle outlasted Dallas and still remains in the running for every one of those cups (though their claim on the Supporters Shield is pretty tenuous as the Los Angeles Galaxy pull away in that race). This weekend represents the first opportunity to clinch one of them, as a win over Vancouver would earn the first of the MLS-era Cascadia Cups. Admittedly that Cup would be the least important of the five to most Seattle fans given that only three teams are competing for it, but hardware is hardware and Seattle should and does have a voracious appetite to fill the trophy cabinet.
With the opportunity to win a trophy also comes the opportunity for a measure of revenge. The reverse leg of this matchup was a wild, raucous game worthy of its national television coverage and ended with one of the best goals you'll ever see when Erik Hassli turned and volleyed a shot into the side netting of Kasey Keller's goal from 25 yards out. Had that ridiculous goal not gone in, the Sounders would have a much better shot of catching Los Angeles, would have a much better chance of beating out Real Salt Lake for second place, and would have the Cascadia Cup nearly sewn up. I would expect the Sounders to be more aggressive and push harder for a win than they might otherwise in any other away match, which would create opportunities at both ends of the field.
It's also a chance for a memorable retirement of Empire Field. This will be the final match at the temporary facility before the Caps and the BC Lions of the CFL move to BC Place Stadium. Whitecaps fans are probably hoping that most of the memories of the first two thirds of the season get demolished with the facility. The high profile firing of Teitur Thordarson and replacement with Director of Soccer Operations Tom Soehn failed to change the early poor fortune of the club and they remain buried at the bottom of the MLS standings, forced to look up at their expansion mates and Cascadia rival Portland Timbers, who are on the edge of playoff qualification. That leaves the Cascadia Cup as all they have to play for other than pride this season, so expect their best form.
And if the Cup isn't decided this week (because Seattle either loses or draws), it will be decided the next week in the final match of the Trivalry, when Vancouver plays their first ever game in BC Place and the Timbers come to town. While Sounders fans obviously hope to tie up the Cup this weekend, the drama of a single game to decide it has to be attractive to the rest of the US Soccer universe.
The instinct when you watch the Whitecaps is to think they're a dynamic and dangerous offensive team that struggles on defense, and you'd be half right. They're tied for the second most goals given up in the league (with the New England Revolution and behind Toronto FC). But they're even worse at offense — they have the fewest goals scored in MLS. How'd that happen?
It might be reminiscent of the offensive struggles Seattle had in its expansion season in 2009 when we were rolling out attacking talent that included Freddie Ljungberg, Fredy Montero, Steve Zakuani, and Nate Jaqua near his prime, but ended the season with only an average number of goals scored and made the playoffs (and nearly the Supporters Shield) with best-in-the-league defense. It seems like offense needs more time to gel than defense. Seattle fans will likely never forget the incredible number of balls that zigged when the intended target zagged in that season. No amount of offensive skill matters if the players can't anticipate each other and develop an understanding, and that apparently can't happen in one season. But with players like Hassli, Camilo, Davide Chiumiento, and Omar Salgado, the Whitecaps should become incredibly dangerous as they develop that understandings. Hopefully for Seattle, they just wait one more game.
In their last match, the Caps got rolled by the Galaxy despite controlling much of the game and nearly earning a penalty call. Hassli has gotten over his early season affection for cautions and suspensions and is ever present as probably the league's best target man up top with Camilo and Chiumiento rotating as wingers or withdrawn forwards behind him. The weakness seems to be in defense, where onetime American international Jay DeMerit has a spot locked down but the rest of the line in unsettled as Soehn shipped out and shipped in players in a game of defensive musical chairs before the roster deadline. All three Galaxy goals came through pretty porous Vancouver defense, where players were allowed to just sit in space in the Whitecaps box without picking up a marker. Pete Vagenas has been called in to play the grizzled veteran defensive midfielder to solidify the defense, but with mixed results.
Seattle is either coming off of a brilliant demolition of DC United or a frustrating, demoralizing home loss to Herediano, depending on what you mean by 'Seattle'. The Herediano game showed that the Jaqua/Pat Noonan/Roger Levesque tier of players can't be relied upon to generate offense by themselves, but it's a lesson mostly irrelevant to a game that will be featuring Montero (as a starter), Mike Fucito, and Alvaro Fernandez. Unfortunately it will not be featuring #trialist Mauro Rosales, who will be out at least two weeks with an MCL tear. What to do with the right wing is the major lineup question for the match and it will probably be Lamar Neagle and Fernandez dividing up the two wings. Dave guesses Neagle on the right. I'm guessing Alvaro on the right. Riley may also be replaced at right back by Zach Scott after suffering a concussion at the hands of — Zach Scott. After Scott's thorough neutralizing of Brek Shea from that position we'd probably be comfortable with that, but the reserve defender had an abysmal game against Herediano, including a number of giveaways and conceding the foul that led to the winning goal.
- Montero vs DeMerit - Vancouver have shown themselves prone to letting players lurk around in the box unmarked, and Montero hasn't been left unmarked in the box in at least a year. We know he has the finishing touch to be deadly if he has space to operate, and he only needs a little. DeMerit is a stout defender against larger strikers, but up against a frontline of Montero and Fucito it'll be quick feet that matter more.
Osvaldo Alonso vs Chiumiento - Swiss Ronaldinho is the distributor in the Whitecaps attack, and Alonso is capable of starving off that distribution, which would force Vancouver to lob balls to Hassli and hope he wins them or run their attack down into the corners. Closing out the central midfield would also cut down on any long shots which the Caps are prone to and Seattle is prone to suffering from.
- Scott vs Shea Salinas - Or insert Camilo or even Chiumiento here as they will tend to run down the left wing as well. Assuming Riley can't go and Scott starts, he needs to recover from that awful game against Herediano. His major problem in that match was an inability to deal with the high pressure the Costa Ricans were putting on the back line. If Tom Soehn watched the tape of the CCL match, you can expect some pressure on the right back and Scott will need to be able to distribute out of it without drama.