Depending on Chicago's result against New York, the Sounders will start play tonight sitting in either ninth or 10th in PPM and eight in overall points. Assuming FC Dallas holds onto what is currently a 3-1 lead over 10-man Philadelphia, the Sounders will have a chance to move up to fifth in overall points with a victory (eighth in PPM). A tie would leave the Sounders in eighth in points and 10th in PPM.
Three weeks ago, I set a target of seven points during the three-game stretch that culminates with tonight's game against Houston. A tie would meet that goal, and leave the Sounders in pretty decent position for the stretch run. They wouldn't control their own destiny -- to borrow a baseball term -- but the scenarios they would need to play into their favor are realistic.
This team has come a long way since that loss to the Galaxy on July 4. They have managed to turn this season into something that has the potential to be something special. The fans can feel the excitement. The players are loose and actually seem to be enjoying the fixture congestion.
I'm not sure that a loss drastically changes all of that, the Sounders would still be eighth in points and 10th in PPM (same as a tie). The concern, I'd have would be more related to momentum.
A loss at home against an opponent that the Sounders really should beat would be a blow to the ego and would definitely take out some air. They would still have one more game to get their mojo back before the schedule turns ugly, but that's an away match against a Chivas USA team that is playing much better in recent weeks.
This is not a must-win, but is a really-really-really-like-to-win.
Without further ado, our Keys to the Game:
1. Continued integration of the Big 4: We don't think Alvaro Fernandez is going to start this week, so we'll call the "Big 4" Fredy Montero, Blaise Nkufo, Steve Zakuani and whoever is playing the other wide mid (we think it will be Sanna Nyassi). Each week, Nkufo has looked better and better. He easily could have had a pair of goals last week, including one that would have been an instant classic if it wasn't for that darned Jon Busch ruining all our fun. Nkufo doesn't necessarily need to score, but it would be very good to see him continuing to improve on his ability to work with the other offensive cogs. Most likely that will mean continuing to develop into the target forward this team has lacked for much of the season and opening up lanes for the the speedy guys on the outside. This might be Nyassi's last chance to impress before Fernandez is completely match fit, so it probably behooves him to continue his improvement and not regress to the player that has driven some on this sight into near blinding range (OK, that was a tad hyperbolic, but you get my point.
2. Force the Houston offense to go through anyone other than Brad Davis and Brian Ching: As I pointed out in my Scouting Report of the Dynamo, Ching has simply not been the player to whom we've grown accustomed. He's not making his presence known in the middle and he's not taking nearly as many shots as he did pre-injury. Let's not make this the match he breaks out. I fully expect to have the Jeff Parke-Patrick Ianni tandem together today and think they'll be up to the task, especially after they handled the much more in-form Conor Casey with relative ease. If Parke is held out (he apparently suffered a concussion against San Jose last week), things change quite a bit. I don't think we've seen an Ianni-Tyrone Marshall tandem for an extended period, but they weren't bad against the Quakes. Let's hope we don't need an encore. Controlling Davis will have much more to do with Osvaldo Alonso, James Riley and Nathan Sturgis. Davis is a dangerous player, but he's no superman. At least make Houston prove they have other legitimate weapons. The Sounders have done a great job recently of creating defensive pressure with their offensive players, continuing that trend would definitely go a long way toward accomplishing this goal.
3. Continue to win the shots-on-goal battle: This may seem a bit obvious, but we're going with it anyway. The Sounders' turnaround has not necessarily been boosted by a ton of scoring. That doesn't mean the offense hasn't been better. The team has been averaging 5.25 shots on goal per game during their four-match unbeaten streak after averaging 3.93 during their first 15 matches. That might not seem like a significant difference, but every shot on goal creates about .25 goals league-wide. The Sounders have also been limited opponents to 4.00 SOG per game. The best way to continue this equation is to create pressure in the box while limiting the inverse. This dovetails nicely with the other two keys, but we're going with it anyway.
Dave will be at the game today, I expect to be hosting the gamethread from the pressbox. Don't forget, the match doesn't kick off until 8 p.m. See you then.