Today's match against the San Jose Earthquakes was always going to be an unwelcome fixture. The third match in seven days (and fourth in ten) it tags along like an annoying little brother. The priority was, of course, the US Open Cup Final on Wednesday. And between the regular season matches that book-ended the final, you'd prioritize the home match against the LA Galaxy over the away match to San Jose, and so it looks like we did.
If we had won the final, this match would be an obligatory run out for the reserves in the midst of our celebration. After a loss, it feels like a sick joke played on us by the league. Even the fact that there's a 'trophy' at stake hints at mockery. Yes, you'd be forgiven for forgetting about the Heritage Cup. Before Portland and Vancouver entered the league it was kind of a thing... if you think that the Brimstone Cup and the Trillium Cup and other slightly forced two-team rivalry Cups are a thing. But with the entry of the rest of Cascadia the Heritage Cup failed to interest the newcomers as it would have become the Cascadia Cup plus San Jose, which is hardly a natural rivalry. Maybe if the New York Cosmos enter the league, it could carry some weight as a five-team competition. Regardless, for now it's just us two and we're the two time defending cup holders. Yaaay.
Projecting the San Jose lineup is pretty straightforward. They've been out of the US Open Cup (thanks to the Butcher of Kezar) and have never played in continental competition, though the previous incarnation played in the CONCACAF Champions Cup before moving to Houston. And their big midseason friendly was against Swansea 12 days ago. They've they've been twiddling their thumbs since then. So you can expect all hands on deck.
The Seattle lineup, on the other hand, will be an adventure. Sure, Sigi could run the starters out there again and they'd put in an okay performance, but after 120 minutes on Wednesday in muggy conditions which clearly left a number of players completely gassed, that seems cruel. Even though it's against the current Supporters Shield favorites, this feels like a game to run out some reserves. There are hints that that will happen. Academy player Dominique Dismuke tweeted that he'd be playing with the Reserves in San Jose tomorrow, and he's unlikely to be the only one. Academy players in the Reserves frees up Reserves for the senior game.
As a keeper, Michael Gspurning should be fine to play whenever. Usual senior players who didn't play in Kansas City are Adam Johansson and Jeff Parke, so they should be good to go. Wednesday's subs were Brad Evans, Christian Tiffert, and Marc Burch, so let's pencil them in. If you put Tiffert in the middle, Evans is probably best positioned at right wing. That leaves a center back, defensive mid, left wing, and two forwards.
Andy Rose was the first sub out against KC, but he played almost 70 minutes. He could go at DM, or we could see Servando Carrasco, who's been a pretty reliable sub for Osvaldo Alonso at that position. At center back, this could be a time for Daniel Steres, who has no senior appearances. Otherwise Hurtado and Ianni have to draw straws. At winger, Cordell Cato is in the rotation and available, though he usually plays on the right, where we've penciled in Evans. One could switch, or Tiffert could go left where he has played for other teams.
Forward is the real problem. Fredy Montero looked completely cooked when he was subbed out in the final and he could use another week of rejuvenation. Sammy Ochoa has done well in his substitute appearances in the Cup run but has never been a starter. Steve Zakuani is now completely off the injury report and was on the bench on Wednesday, but a starting spot seems very unlikely after only one brief substitute appearance all season. David Estrada is still injured. Roger Levesque retired. Cato could maybe play forward if we didn't need him for the wing. If it has to be either Montero or Johnson, I suppose I'd go with Montero, who has a quick recovery and has had some sub appearances recently. Then again, EJ might want to get back up on the bike quickly after missing that last penalty kick.
Tactically, we know what to expect. The Earthquakes will emphasize wing play to advance the ball up to their attacking end, where Chris "the Ghost" Wondolowski will drift into all sorts of spaces with late runs to get wide open shots that will make you scream at your television demanding to know why the Golden Boot leader isn't being marked. And Steven Lenhart and/or Alan Gordon will be alternately pissing off our defenders with dirty plays and taking dangerous headed shots.
The key is cutting off service from the sidelines with aggressive defensive play from our sideline players. That's not a great fit with Burch, Cato, or frankly Johansson. Evans on the wing can help there. Posting Tiffert out on the other wing could help as well. The other key is keeping track of Wondolowski with good communication among the defenders. The other, other key is playing strong in the air to keep the ball off the heads of the San Jose big men. Do all those things and you limit the Earthquakes chances enough to keep us in the game.
One thing that should be emphasized is that even thought it'll be a patchwork roster we send out there, we're not conceding the game. We beat Monterrey in Mexico with a patchwork roster. Every player on this team is a quality MLS player and they're going to step out on the field with the intent to win. This game is the least important in a crazy run of four, but it's still important enough to fight for. I promise you won't see a performance like the Red Bulls put out in Houston last week, when it was abundantly clear they didn't even want to be there. That isn't how Sounders represent (except in one mulligan a season, which we already saw in Montreal).
So buckle up and get ready to cheer on a Seattle B+ roster as it takes on the well-rested best team in the league.