There's simply no avoiding it, the Seattle Sounders' biggest game of the regular-season is Saturday. If they have any hope of winning the Supporters' Shield, beating the San Jose Earthquakes is an absolute must. A win would leave the Sounders six points out with five games left to play and a game in hand.
Those are still reasonably long odds, to be sure, but beyond the Shield, the Sounders are also battling with eight teams that are within three points of them on either side. The result of this game may not define the season, but it is bound to make it a lot more interesting.
Despite these pressures, the Sounders seem to feel very confident about their chances. In talking to reporters on Friday, Michael Gspurning went as far as to say this: "I’m not worried about San Jose, not at all, because I know about our qualities."
Should the Sounders be a bit more wary of the Earthquakes? Despite having a 1-2-0 record against them, the numbers suggest the Sounders have reasons to feel confident.
The first thing to keep in mind is the Sounders haven't played any of these games at anything close to full strength.
The midfield in the first meeting featured both Christian Sivebaek and Servando Carrasco in starting roles and Eddie Johnson was missing, as well. Still, the Sounders had most of the run of play and the only goal they allowed came on a highly questionable penalty being awarded to Steven Lenhart.
The U.S. Open Cup clash saw the Sounders playing on just one day's rest and using an almost entirely second-choice lineup. Among the starters that day were Brad Evans at right back and Roger Levesque at forward. Osvaldo Alonso, Fredy Montero and Mauro Rosales didn't even play. The Sounders still managed to pull out a 1-0 victory in a game made famous when Eddie Johnson was accused of assaulting every Earthquakes player, technical staff member and fan in attendance.
The final matchup again saw the Sounders playing on short rest, just a few days after their emotional shootout loss in the Open Cup final. Rosales, Montero and Johnson all came off the bench and Christian Tiffert got what is still his only start of the season at forward. The Earthquakes were the better team that day, but the Sounders created plenty of chances and were only undone when Lenhart scored the game-winner in the dying seconds.
Add it all up and the Sounders have been outscored 3-2, but actually hold a 38-37 shots advantage. Those are hardly the kind of numbers that scream "be afraid."
Unfortunately, the Sounders are going to be short-handed again. Johnson is out with yellow-card accumulation and it sounds as if Rosales is unlikely to play, with Tiffert looking a bit more likely. Still, the Sounders match up reasonably well.
Sammy Ochoa has earned the right to start this game and has been among the Sounders' best players in non-league competition. His hold up play should help occupy the Earthquakes centerbacks and give Montero some room to operate. Montero and Ochoa have also formed a nice little partnership in limited time. In about 316 minutes across all competitions, the two forwards have combined for eight goals. That's about 2.28 goals per 90 minutes.
Missing Rosales would obviously leave the Sounders at less than full strength, but as long as Tiffert can play that should be plenty of playmaking from the midfield. In the other game he played against the Earthquakes, Tiffert easily could have had two or three assists with some better finishing.
None of this is meant to suggest the Earthquakes are anything less than a formidable foe. They are an absolute scoring juggernaut, averaging 2.06 goals per game and currently boasting a +25 goal-difference that would be among the best marks since 2000.
But the Sounders have hung with them every time they've played. That they seem to be relishing this opportunity is a very good thing.