As the Sounders head off to Columbus today -- fresh off a third consecutive loss in the CCL group stage that leaves them six points out of second place -- they have some serious decisions to make.
Most pressing, but essentially out of the Sounders' hands, is today's Roster Freeze Deadline. We've already seen Colorado make two moves, acquiring Mac Kandji from New York and Brian Mullan from Houston (here's Dynamo Theory's take) at the cost of Mehdi Ballouchy and Collin Clark. I'm not sure this is the kind of trade-deadline move we're used to seeing in other professional leagues since the Rapids gave up significant pieces in both deals, but it does seem to indicate a certain aggressiveness. The Sounders have far fewer options, in my estimation, mainly because of a lack of salary cap maneuverability and the fact that so many players are having health issues. (You can follow all the happenings here.)
More likely, any moves the Sounders make will be in relation to the Injured Reserve. If the Sounders hope to have Brad Evans, Peter Vagenas or Jhon Kennedy Hurtado available for the playoffs, they'll need to activate them now. Of that group, only Vagenas appears anywhere near capable of returning soon with Hurtado being a longshot to be healthy for the playoffs. Pat Noonan is the most likely candidate to be IR'd, as he's failed to fully participate in practice for a couple months.
As tough as the decision to declare a player "out for the season" may be, the Sounders face much bigger issues in terms of how to use their personnel for the remainder of the season.
In the 11 days between Tuesday and Sept. 25, the Sounders will play four road matches in three countries and make three plane trips of at least 1,300 miles each. Starting on Saturday when they play at Columbus, the Sounders will play 11 matches over the season's final 34 days (which obviously doesn't include the possibility of any playoff games).
One way or another, the Sounders coaches are going to need to find ways to give players some time off. We saw it last night when Patrick Ianni, Jeff Parke and Kasey Keller were all rested despite being healthy (at least as far as we know). Injuries forced Zach Scott and Roger Levesque into starting roles as well.
Until Leo Gonzalez's red card that left the Sounders a man down for the final 52-plus minutes, Seattle looked perfectly capable of winning that match despite playing without several of their best players. Even after that, the Sounders actually had a chance to take the lead at the end of the first half (when Steve Zakuani failed to capitalize on a potential 1 v. 1 situation) and had a good chance to salvage a point (the Sounders could have basically played for a tie if Osvaldo Alonso converted that penalty).
Regardless of why it happened, the Sounders are now six points behind second place in their group -- with three matches left to play -- and advancement is a longshot. We can expect to see a lineup that features at least a couple more reserves when CCL play continues next Wednesday at Monterrey.
As much as I support the idea of #trophiesnotfriendlies, I also pride myself on being a realist. Right now, the Sounders have a very real chance to make the playoffs (where we know anything can happen). They'll also be playing for the U.S. Open Cup title on Oct. 5. The CCL, unfortunately, has probably passed into distraction territory
A win against Monterrey seems highly unlikely at this point, but it does represent what is probably the only feasible path toward advancement. Even if the Sounders manage to tie that match, they'd still need Marathon to beat or tie Saprissa on Sept. 22 to have a mathematical chance to advance.
The best thing we can probably say about CCL, at this point, is that the heavy travel will be over next week. The final two group stage games will both be at home (vs. Marathon on Sept. 29 and vs. Saprissa on Oct. 19) and the competition's final two matches won't cause any undo hardships in the schedule.
The remaining CCL matches can probably best be used to try some new formations, get some reserves needed playing time and allow some youngsters to show what they can do. Recently reactivated Michael Fucito would seem to be a prime candidate in all these senses.
His season has been cut frustratingly short, but there seems to be some real promise there as either a withdrawn forward or as a wing. Although he's never played on the right side, it would be a nice experiment to see how playing two "wrong-footed" players -- left wing Steve Zakuani is naturally right footed -- might work. It would also be enlightening to see how he might work playing beneath a true target forward such as Blaise Nkufo or Nate Jaqua (although the longterm benefit of this might be limited since it's hard to imagine Fredy Montero being displaced).
I, for one, wouldn't mind seeing Nathan Sturgis getting some time at right back. That would allow Alvaro Fernandez to get some time as a central midfielder (something we saw last night), while having the potential to provide some depth at one of the Sounders' shallower positions.
With health still being a very real issue, finding depth will be key from here on out. Even discounting the CCL matches, the Sounders are heading into one of the toughest stretches of their season.
Three of their next four matches are on the road against teams fighting for playoff spots and the fourth is a home match against Toronto, a team that is down but certainly not out. Sitting at 33 points, the Sounders would need at least three points in those matches to have any chance to get to 42 (the likely playoff cut off number). With only two MLS matches remaining at Qwest, the Sounders will also need at least three road points in their final four road matches to reach that magic mark.
As big as winning at Columbus would be from a psychological standpoint, the real important matches are Chicago (Sept. 25) and. at Kansas City (Oct. 9). Victories in one or both those matches -- against the teams with the best shots at catching the Sounders -- would go a long way toward locking up that final playoff spot.
Rest of season schedule
Sept. 18: at Columbus
Sept. 22: at Monterrey (CCL)
Sept. 25: at Chicago
Sept. 29: vs. Marathon (CCL)
Oct. 2: vs. Toronto
Oct. 5: vs. Columbus (USOC)
Oct. 9: at Kansas City
Oct. 12: Chivas de Guadalajara (Friendly C)
Oct. 15: vs. Chivas USA
Oct. 19: vs. Saprissa (CCL)
Oct. 23: at Houston (end of MLS regular season)