Whether or not the Sounders (12 points in 11 matches) win this week, they will not put themselves back into playoff position. New York's win over Houston on Wednesday made sure of that by leaving both the Red Bulls (16 points in 11 matches) and Dynamo (16 points in 12 matches) with four-point cushions for the final playoff spot.
As the Sounders head into the World Cup break, staying ahead of the teams that are currently behind them is, perhaps, even more important.
One of those teams is this week's opponent, the New England Revolution (11 points in 11 matches). A Sounders win would mean they are four points clear of the Revs and would guarantee that no other team could jump ahead of them in the playoff race before the break (although several will have games in hand). A loss could potentially create a scenario in which the Sounders would head into the break needing to pass seven teams in order to make the playoffs. That's still not an impossible task, but it obviously doesn't make life any easier.
That 10 of their post-break games will be on the road only makes this two-game pre-break homestand more important.
"We love the fact that we have the best home crowd in the league and we don’t want that to change," Sounders keeper Kasey Keller said. "We want that to keep going. We’ve got two games at home now coming up before the break and we really feel this is a big, big opportunity for us to change this form around and get ourselves back into a good position in the league. I, for one, and the other guys want to take advantage of these games against two teams out of our conference. We’re ready to move up the table. "
As recently as two weeks ago, this match looked to be as winnable as any on the schedule. The Revs were in the midst of a seven-match winless streak, were without the services of their two best offensive players (Taylor Twellman and Shalrie Joseph) and had been playing generally uninspiring soccer.
That all changed during last week's 3-2 win over the Red Bulls.
Not only did the team receive a shot in the arm from Joseph -- who played in just his third game of the season and appears to be fully fit for the first time this year -- but they also gained a reason for honest inspiration.
In the 34th minute of the match, starting goalkeeper Preston Burpo suffered as ugly an injury as most will ever see in a soccer match when he collided with Dane Richards and broke his fibula in two places. Replays made it appear as if his shin had literally cracked in half. Players on both teams were obviously shaken, with several openly crying.
"It was just horrific," Joseph told Revolutionsoccer.net. "Preston was so brave – he came out and sacrificed his body for the team. I just wanted to go over there, console him, hold his hand and tell him how much we really appreciate what he’s doing."
Burpo, who played for the USL Sounders from 1997-2005, was having a career year during what was his first extended opportunity to start in MLS. It would hardly seem inauthentic for the team to use his injury as a motivating factor.
"I told them to just keep their heads up and focus on the game," said Joseph of the message to his teammates. "You can’t do anything about it – it happened and you just go out there and do it for Preston … just hold your head up and play soccer."
While Burpo's injury may provide a rallying point, the on-field reality is that the Revolution will most likely turn to a player who was the third-stringer at the start of the season.
Bobby Shuttleworth made his MLS regular season debut last week and played reasonably well. He saved two of the three shots he faced and appeared to be in command, grabbing several crosses and directing his defense. The Revolution also just activated Matt Reis, who had been on injured reserve.
The defense in front of whoever starts in goal hasn't been particularly strong. The Revs have allowed the second most shots per game (13.4) and the most shots on goal per game (6.18). That they are as good as 12th in goals against average (1.55) speaks to the quality of Burpo's play. Before Wednesday's games, Burpo was leading in saves (48) and still has the second most. He's also fifth in save percentage (.738).
For a large chunk of the season, the Revs offense hasn't been particularly good either. In the eight games without Joseph, the Revs have scored six goals. In the three games with him, they've scored seven.
His contribution was obvious during last week's game. Joseph, a midfielder, was all over the field making defensive plays, creating havoc in the opponent's box with his 6-foot-3 frame and assisting on two of his team's three goals.
It was the kind of performance for which he has become known and that has made him a regular MLS All-Star. It was also the kind of performance on which the Revs have relied throughout his tenure with the team.
Since Joseph's first year in 2003, the Revs are 80-55-56 with Joseph on the pitch and 9-17-8 in matches without him. That's .51 points per game fewer without Joseph than with him.
Sounders midfielder Brad Evans said he considers Joseph the standard bearer for MLS players at their position.
"He’s a guy that’s played in the league for a number of years, and any guy who’s played in the league that long you watch their game and see their success," Evans said. "It seems like every year he’s got eight goals and eight assists. Somehow, he just finds a way to get it done.
"He finds a way to get into the box. He finds a way to get goals. But he’s also an unselfish player. He’s looking to get assists as well. I think the biggest thing that I take from him is that he does everything he can to make the team win. Just leading the team, really. "
The biggest benefactor of Joseph's presence would seem to be forward Zack Schilawski. The rookie has five goals this year, four of which have come with Joseph on the field and two of them off assists from Joseph, one of which came last week. Schilawski, a rookie, has yet to show a lot of consistency, but as his hat-trick performance on April 10 shows, he's definitely explosive.
The Revs' other main offensive threat is midfielder Marco Perovic. Since being inserted into the starting XI seven matches ago, Perovic has taken over as the main set-piece taker. Although he has yet to register an assist, his corners are often well struck and dangerous. He also possesses good on-ball skills and has scored two goals.