Two major trophy winners from 2009 face off in an early test for 2010. Salt Lake was the first of the expansion sides to win the MLS Cup, and Seattle was the first to take the US Open Cup. Both are following a similar path in how to be good, but not just going through typical-for-MLS roster churn, but instead focusing on keeping a strong and large core of talent with just a few tweaks between seasons. While Seattle has the huge names, Salt Lake has gone with players who probably deserve more recognition than they get.
Salt Lake is over 4,000 feet above sea level, so it shouldn't surprise that they have a great home record. Nine wins, five draws and only one loss in 2009. But it isn't just altitude, they do a decent job at creating atmosphere there and average more than 18,000 fans per match last season. This year they are likely to beat that, and they are CERTAIN to pass that number on Saturday Night when the Sounders visit. You see, the team is celebrating their MLS Cup victory and receiving their rings that night.
What are the keys to Seattle getting a win in this tough road environment?
1 - Using and Controlling the Midfield - Beckerman and Morales are both amazing in Salt Lake's Diamond. Either can be an All-Star in any given year, but the talent doesn't stop there. Grabavoy and Johnson are both solid as well. Sigi sees this as a key too.
"Well, they pinch their midfield. They play more of a diamond in midfield so their outside midfielders [Will] Johnson and [Ned] Grabavoy really operate more like central midfielders than they do like wide midfielders. They sacrifice a little bit of attacking play and try to build their game around possession in the middle of the field."
He continues talking about how to counter that.
"When we have the ball, we need to keep the ball. We need to make them defend as much as possible so we need to keep the ball. When they have the ball, we just need to do a good job defensively – talking, shifting, making sure we keep them on the same side of the field.""When we have the ball, we need to keep the ball. We need to make them defend as much as possible so we need to keep the ball. When they have the ball, we just need to do a good job defensively – talking, shifting, making sure we keep them on the same side of the field."
It goes further though. Seattle can't drift into the punt and pray, but instead should use the speed of Zakuani, the skillful defense of Alonso to tire out the opposition as well. Yes, they will be more use to the lower oxygen, but there are few teams in MLS with as capable a midfield as Seattle, and so Seattle must use it.
2 - Correct Personnel Choices - The traveling roster is out, but who starts and how the subs will be used can be a key to this match. The 10 usual suspects/constant starters of course went, the other eight though are Levesque, Noonan, Fucito, Vagenas, Sturgis, Ianni, Wahl and Boss. Now that the Five for Fighting are down to just three you and I can continue to speculate, but for Sigi who starts can define the game plan.
If Levesque it means that he wants to go with the veteran who most knows the current team the best. With Roger's success in the past the feeling could be that he is "due" and should come up in this important match. He wouldn't be starting because he's the only USL guy on the 18, but because he has a penchant for scoring when it matters.
If Fucito, this would indicate that the idea is to play up tempo early. It would also be a reward for a player who has done everything asked of them in reserve and scrimmage play. We should see a ton of quick ball movement, but also expect late substitutions of both Noonan and Levesque who could use veteran savvy and fresh legs to capitalize on the weary Salt Lake side.
If Noonan, we should think that Sigi has seen enough in practice that he wants to give the veteran the chance. It would be a nod to Pat's history in the league and his proven ability to score over a many-season time frame. We should also expect a substitution of either Fucito or Levesque at some point in this role, while the other goes somewhere else too. Sigi talked about Noonan today:
"I knew what we were getting with Pat in terms of his character and his attitude and how he would fit in. I knew he would fit in with our team. He’s a good soccer player. He knows how to play the game. Now we just need him to give us some of those benefits on the field, get some goals and get some assists. I think he is capable of doing that."
I expect the starter to be Noonan, but I think that both Roger and Mike will get about 30 minutes. The elevation just seems to demand it. If there isn't an injury we should expect Sturgis or Ianni as well. This is a 3 sub match to be certain.
3 - Keller - I don't think I've ever said this before, but Keller could be key. Sure he isn't a cat in a man's body, but Salt Lake can put some pressure on the keeper. With borderline National Team player Findley, as well as Espindola, Johnson and of course Morales Keller will have to be keen and prepared. I have a sense of a higher scoring affair, and in those a few quality saves can make the difference.
Prost Amerika and I are throwing a viewing party. You should be there.
This is the first game on KONG this year. Arlo White with the call. It will be simulcast on 97.3 FM. On radio my old pal Matt Johnson will host pre/half/post.
For the first time in MLS history there will be 8 matches on the same day. Davis calls the Seattle @ RSL match the one to see in his SI column. His comments on Seattle's offense are painful and poignant.
Have you seen the new Match Day Quick Reference Card? It's now been updated to reflect the traveling roster.