Today's game against the New England Revolution probably the least important game for the Seattle Sounders in any competition this season. How's THAT for a scintillating preview?
Even the last match of the CCL group stage against Monterrey has something on the line, with the possibility of winning the group (and thus presumably earning an easier first matchup in the bracket) and perhaps even eliminating the defending champions from the competition entirely. But there's very little difference between winning the #2 or #3 seed in the West. The matchup is almost certainly against Real Salt Lake regardless. There are two benefits to winning #2. First, Seattle would get the second leg (and thus any overtime) at home. And second, there's a slightly increased chance that Seattle would qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League next season.
That might take a little more explaining. The four CCL slots apportioned to the US are given out to the winner of the Supporters Shield, the two teams in the MLS Cup final, and the winner of the US Open Cup. In the event that a single team claims more than one of those accomplishments (and it's possible for a single team to take up to three of them), the extras are given out to the next teams in the MLS standings as if it were a single table. So if the Galaxy win the Shield (as is almost certain now) and then make the final, the #2 seed in MLS would get their additional CCL slot. Of course, the Sounders anticipate making the CCL by winning the US Open Cup on Tuesday and taking it out of the Galaxy's hands. And even if they don't, they could still make it by making it to the final. So you're talking about maybe a 10% increase in the chances of making the CCL by winning #2 versus #3.
And Seattle's very likely to win #2 regardless of what happens today. With FC Dallas suffering their end of season swoon, the only real rivals are Real Salt Lake, who are 3 points back. But they'll be without captain Kyle Beckerman for at least one more game after he butted his nappy dreadlocks into Daniel Paladini of the Chicago Fire in their last match. And they'll have to live without him through one of the toughest remaining schedules in MLS, with 3 of their 4 remaining games on the road, including trips to the LA Galaxy and Colorado, as well as a home finale against the Portland Timbers, who might be fighting for the playoffs.
Those are strong arguments for saving the Sounders' bullets for that US Open Cup final on Tuesday, in which a win would guarantee a CCL spot (and their second trophy of the season). That's not to say that Seattle would throw in the towel. A reserve Seattle team is evidently good enough to beat Monterrey in Mexico, and New England isn't that.
The Revolution season has just been awful. Some teams got off to terrible starts and during the season seemed to figure things out (that would include Toronto FC and the Chicago Fire), giving their fans hope for next year. New England got off to a terrible start and seems intent on ending with a terrible finish. They've won 5 games all season — one each in March, April, May, July and September. The midseason coup of acquiring Benny Feilhaber thanks to Chivas USA's lack of interest hasn't yet reaped the benefits that they must have hoped for.
The foundation of the New England team is the central midfield. That has been the case for years with Shalrie Joseph being one of the best non-Osvaldo Alonso defensive midfielders in the league. And that tendency has only been reinforced by the addition of Feilhaber at the top of the diamond in front of Joseph. The rest of the lineup is wide open after New England recycled a big chunk of their roster in midseason. Sainney Nyassi once roamed the wing like a typical Nyassi (dangerous speed, dangerless everything else) but has been replaced by the newly acquired Ryan Guy in recent games. Zach Schilawski is a forward who's only scored 1 goal in 22 games this season starting pretty just about everywhere except forward, but has started up top recently. He's paired with the Revolution's first DP — Milton Caraglio, who was also signed midseason. If he's not paired with Schlawski, he might be paired with the 16-year-old academy product Diego Fagundez, who's been reported as a starter. Or the teenager could start on the left wing. The backline will be slightly improved with the addition of rookie AJ Soares back from injury, but it remains one of the worst in the league, with no dominant physical players and little counterattacking threat from the fullbacks.
Seattle's lineup will be harder to predict. How deep we go into the reserves will be a measure of how much less importance Sigi gives this game than the Cup final on Tuesday against the resurgent Chicago Fire. The team is just finishing up an epic road trip that swung from Vancouver to Guatemala to the East Coast before returning to Seattle to play on three day's rest. Any time off that can be given to heavily used players has to be welcome. That would include Alonso (who'd likely be replaced with Servando Carrasco), the frontline of Fredy Montero and Mike Fucito (by Sammy Ochoa and Nate Jaqua?), and centerback Jeff Parke (for Ianni). It's been suggested that key player Mauro Rosales may be healed enough from an MCL injury to put in some minutes, but it seems madness to risk him in this match. James Riley may also be back from a concussion, and given his general level of fitness and the up and down play of Zach Scott recently, that may be the one place where you put in a player that's also scheduled to play on Tuesday and move Scott to center back instead. We've even penciled in Josh Ford for a start at keeper. If you were going to give the rookie any minutes in a regular season match this year, this would be the one.
- Scott vs Caraglio - If Scott does get shifted into central defense, his biggest priority will be dealing with the skill of the striker Caraglio, who made an appearance for West Ham United last season and was called up to the Argentine national team two years ago. Expect a lot of help from the right back and his central back partner to deal with that pedigree, as Schilawski and Chris Tierney (or Fagundez) in the left midfield don't have nearly the threat.
- Ochoa vs Soares - Ochoa has looked promising in the few short substitute appearances he's made since signing with the team just before the roster deadline. His biggest issue right now is fitness, but you'd hope he's in good enough shape now to put in 60 minutes or so. If he does start, he might be the Sounders' most potent offensive threat, as Lamar Neagle has been streaky and Nate Jaqua has just fallen off the goal scoring map. Soares has been a pretty much every-game starter on a very bad defensive team, so expect some opportunities.
- Carrasco vs Feilhaber - Benny hasn't been lighting up the scoreboard since he's joined the Revolution, but he's an effective midfield general in front of Joseph and does a good job of drawing defensive attention and distributing the ball to dangerous positions. He's also been effective at drawing fouls that create opportunities, and that may be a problem for Carrasco, who's a physical defensive midfielder who isn't shy about getting stuck in and picking up foul calls. Servando will need to keep Feilhaber under control without drawing the ire of the referee.