The World Cup break officially ends for the Sounders this weekend (though there was that appetizer of a couple of US Open Cup matches), as they travel to take on DC United. This match has been circled on the calendar ever since the offseason trade that sent Eddie Johnson to DC and his desired DP contract in exchange for some cash and the allocation order spot that turned into Marco Pappa. But that was silly and the circle should have been rubbed out as soon as it became obvious that EJ would be called up to the World Cup as a major contributor in qualifying and the natural backup to target man Jozy Alti. . what? That didn't happen? Alright then.
So instead EJ will be playing in Obafemi Martins' Traveling World Cup. Unfortunately, this particular match will not actually feature Martins, who was red carded three weeks ago in the very weird road win in Chicago that was Seattle's last league game. In fact, there will be a lot of good forwards missing. Clint Dempsey is obviously still with the national team preparing to crush Belgium. And United will be without their offensive juggernaut Fabian Espindola, who was suspended by the MLS Disciplinary Committee for cynically cleating Felipe's hamstring in DC's last match.
|Eddie Johnson||Disappointing season so far from the ex-Sounder, but without Espindola on the field he'll be the attacking focus.|
|Nick DeLeon||DC tends to push the attack through the right, which is DeLeon's side of the midfield. He's the crucial connector from defense to attack.|
|Perry Kitchen||The base of the midfield, he'll be protecting a young back line.|
This DC United is not the United of last season, who other than the one bright spot of an Open Cup win had a historically terrible year. This DC United is sitting at the top of the Eastern Conference with only two losses in their last 13 games — both on the road. But the hero of that transformation isn't the new DP Johnson. It's Espindola, who has either scored or assisted 15 of DC's 22 goals this season. Without him DC will be hoping that Johnson can find his scoring touch again without his Mauro Rosales mojo. Or they could look to Luis Silva, who had a hat trick in that Montreal match. The attacking midfielder hit the ground running coming back from an injury, and he fills out an offensively opposing midfield alongside Chris Rolfe and Nick DeLeon.
DC is one of a handful of teams experimenting with a diamond midfield this season. Long the apparently exclusive domain of Real Salt Lake, the diamond is spreading through the league, getting heavy use from Houston, Colorado, the Galaxy, and DC. In 2013, 76 of 646 team games (or about 12%) were reported by Opta has having lined up in the diamond. This season it's already at 51 of 272 lineups, or about 19%.
United's version uses Rolfe and DeLeon as shuttlers in front of the talented Perry Kitchen at defensive mid. That's a solid midfield, but unlike the usual diamond style of using short passing to dominate midfield possession, DC is keen to pump long balls into the attack. In fact they lead the league in 'long passes' per game, as they quickly try to get the ball up to the sprinting Johnson and Espindola. Not surprisingly, they also lead the league in being offside, which was an EJ special when he was with Seattle. And they're quite good in the air, in the top 5 in winning aerial duels and headed shots. That eagerness to get the ball high and forwards puts them in the bottom half in the league for possession, which is an unusual use of the diamond, but it seems to be working for them so far.
Seattle's challenge will be finding offense without Dempsey or Martins. If Sigi is dedicated to keeping Lamar Neagle on the wing even without those two on the field, then we'll need to find a forward pair from Kenny Cooper, Chad Barrett, and Cam Weaver. They've all shown flashes of quality as subs, but not the kind of consistent quality you want from a starter. Honestly, this is a game that calls out for Neagle as a forward — especially with Brad Evans solidly back in the fold to provide an option on the midfield flank.
It helps that DC will be without another ex-Sounder: Jeff Parke. The veteran center back has been their best defender this season, but he's out injured and will be replaced by rookie Steve Birnbaum, who has done an alright job filling in for the last couple of games but will be tested by Seattle's hydra.
At the other end, the defense should be fine. Osvaldo Alonso should be well rested and back to the Honey Badger of old. Chad Marshall remains the Air Marshall and should help negate Johnson's aerial ability.
And without Espindola on the ground and Johnson in the air, both teams will be struggling for offense. I'd expect a low scoring game and Seattle should be happy to get out of the Eastern Time Zone with a draw against the conference leaders and focus on preparing for the Cascadiocalypse week ahead.