The Sounders last played DC United Sept. 12, 2009. The match came about a week after Seattle had won its first-ever trophy by beating MLS's most storied franchise in the U.S. Open Cup final on their home turf.
The Sounders would win again on that day, helping send United on a spiral that saw them claim four points in their final five matches of the 2009 season and resulted in their missing the playoffs for the second straight season.
The spiral continued into this year as United lost their first five matches and claimed just three points in their first nine matches. That start left United with a mark of two wins, one tie and 11 losses since their meeting with the Sounders last season.
Signs of progress finally started to show May 29.
DCU beat Chivas USA 3-2 and received a goal from 17-year-old phenom Andy Najar, who was making his third career MLS start.
Less than a week later, Najar scored a goal in the 107th minute as United eliminated Real Salt Lake in the final round of U.S. Open Cup qualification.
Najar, who entered the game as a 103rd minute substitute, scored about as pretty a goal as any you're likely to see in MLS. Rather than describe it, I'll let you watch it:
A few more days after that, DCU played RSL again and settled for a scoreless draw after significantly outplaying the hottest team this side of the Los Angeles Galaxy.
"They’re coming off two good results," Sounders forward Pat Noonan said. "Everything that has happened prior means nothing. They’re not going to roll over, they’re battling for points. The season is long from over. We need to have the mentality that we’re going to put pressure on them early and find a way to get a lead like we did against New England."
There's simply no getting around the fact that Najar has been a major part of United's resurgent attack. In addition to the goal he scored against Chivas, he's also been active as a playmaker on the right wing.
His dribbling skills appear to be as advanced as any MLS player and he's shown a nice passing touch despite the fact that he doesn't have any assists in MLS contests to show for it. He did have an assist in a USOC qualifying match.
"He is a very talented young player," Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. "He is quick. He’s light on his feet. He likes to take players on. He plays with a lot of confidence for a kid his age, similar I think to (Sounders forward) Miguel Montaño. He plays with a lot of energy and he plays with a lot of confidence."
Another player whose addition to the starting lineup has coincided with DCU's improved play is former Sounders midfielder Stephen King, who was traded to DCU April 29. After playing sparingly in his first several games after the trade, King made his first MLS start in the Chivas match -- he also started in a USOC qualifying victory. He didn't register so much as a shot, but he played well enough to earn another start.
Against RSL, King looked especially strong. He took four shots in that game, two of which were on goal and one of which required a diving stop from RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando. He was also instrumental in United's dominance of the midfield that helped kept RSL from registering a shot on goal until the 93rd minute.
"He’s a good passer, he’s a busy player," said Sounders defensive midfielder Patrick Ianni, who practiced extensively with and against King during their season-and-a-half together. "He’s a pretty well-rounded all-around player. He’s strong for his size. He’ll be a handful on Thursday."
The other main offensive threats for DC United is Danny Allsopp. The 31-year-old Australian has scored two goals during his first full MLS season, and has showed a definite ability to find the back of the net during his other professional stops. Prior to joining MLS, he scored six goals in 12 matches for Qatari side Al Rayyan in 2009, he scored 32 goals during his final three seasons with Australian side Melbourne and, although records are spotty, he scored more than 50 goals for various English sides during several seasons in the lower English divisions.
As improved as the offense has looked recently, the DCU defense had easily its best performance of the season last week. Not only did they keep RSL scoreless, but they were rarely even threatened by a team that entered the game as the top scoring side in MLS.
The return of Dejan Jakovic at center back has helped bolster a backline that had allowed a MLS-worst 2.00 goals per game prior to its first shutout of the season.
Although goalkeeper Troy Perkins was not tested much in the last match, his return as the starter gives DCU a veteran presence they have lacked for large chunks of the season. For much of the time since being re-acquired after the Philadelphia Union picked him in the expansion draft, Perkins has been ineffective. That led to 19-year-old United Academy product Bill Hamid earning four starts. Hamid hasn't been bad -- allowing five goals in four matches and winning twice -- but with Perkins playing well, it would seem that the preference is to have the veteran in the lineup.
"A shutout is a good way to keep this momentum going," United coach Curt Onalfo said after the RSL match. "It’s a good morale booster and it’s good for our defenders to see what it takes."
The Sounders will try to keep their own momentum going and be looking to get their record (currently 4-4-5) level. After winning just once in six matches in which they scored a total of two goals, the Sounders scored a season-high three times against New England. Amongst the scoring barrage were a pair of goal-of-the-week candidates, one of which came in the 5th minute, and a season-high 19 shots, eight of which were on goal.
"There’s not question that it’s gratifying to score as many as we did and to get as many opportunities as we did," Noonan said. "But at the same time, it’s only one game. We need to be consistent. We’re not going to score three goals every game, but if we are being dangerous and creating chances than those are positives. We can’t get ahead of ourselves and think that we’re going to score like that every game, we need to keep battling. Thursday is going to be a battle in itself. If we can get the goals, that's great, but we need to work as hard as we did against New England."