Sigi Schmid may do as much to earn his paycheck in the next couple of weeks of relatively unimportant games as he did during the Seattle Sounders' hectic run of critical league games, cup finals, and CCL group stage matches. The task during that difficult (and almost perfect) autumn run was to keep up the winning while rotating through a deep roster to keep everyone as healthy and fit as possible. The task during the next two and a half weeks will be to maintain positive momentum and keep everyone focused and in shape for the playoffs without taking any unnecessary injury risks. There are many who believe that last season the Sounders lost some of their crispness after coasting through a thin schedule at the end of the 2010 season and that affected their competitiveness in the Galaxy series (though Edson Buddle probably had something to do with it as well).
That's not to say that this stretch of games is completely meaningless. Though we've already qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, beating Monterrey at home next week has some benefits — winning the group theoretically gives an easier route to the final and potentially knocking the defending champs out of the tournament would also increase the odds. And the Supporters Shield is still technically in play, barely. For that to stay the case, we have to beat the Philadelphia Union tomorrow at the Cliff.
The Union also come to town with something to play for. The Eastern Conference playoff race is wide open and a single game can propel a team from a seemingly safe high seed down into the wild card berths or even out of the playoffs completely. After an opening couple of months of the season that had Philadelphia looking like the class of the East and a potential Supporters Shield contender, the Union have fallen off the table. They've only won 2 of their last 12 games and have relied on a succession of draws to grind out the points to keep themselves competitive in the weak Eastern Conference. Now only 1 point separates them from the Houston Dynamo sitting on the playoff cliff, and they're only 4 points ahead of the Portland Timbers who are lurking in the tall grass waiting for any member of the playoff herd to come up lame and give them an opening.
One positive for the Union is that Sebastien Le Toux seems to have gotten his mojo back from wherever Carlos Ruiz had it hidden. The Frenchman has scored 7 of their last 11 goals and was named MLS player of the month for September after spending most of the season in a funk trying to play next to El Pescadito. This will be only the second game in Seattle for Le Toux since he was plucked away from the Sounders in the Union's expansion draft and only the fourth the teams have played against each other, so I wouldn't be surprised if there's some residual affection and a warm welcome for the longtime Sounder.
What success Philadelphia has had this season has been built largely on a compact and disciplined defense, and in exchange they sacrificed a dynamic offense, particularly on the road. The Union come into the game with the 6th fewest shots in the league, ahead only of juggernauts Vancouver, New England, Toronto, DC United, and Colorado. With Ruiz gone to Mexico, their offense relies largely on a combination of Le Toux's relentless work rate and the abilities of Danny Mwanga and new addition Freddy Adu to create chances.
Seattle will also benefit from the effects of long travel. After navigating their own epic road trip through Central America and across both coasts, the Sounders get to wait for a Union team that last week traveled to Los Angeles and back and now crosses the country again. Historically coast to coast trips have not been kind to MLS teams. It was two months into the season before a team traveled from one coast to the other and won. Also, Philadelphia's goalkeeper situation is a question mark. Faryd Mondragon is training with the team but may not be fully back from a broken finger and rookie backup Zac MacMath suffered an ankle injury in last week's match. Third-stringer Thorne Holder is out indefinitely with a concussion, so it's possible goalkeeping duties will fall to fourth-stringer Chase Harrison.
The Sounders lineup will be unsettled up top. We know Fredy Montero is out with yellow card accumulation and Mauro Rosales is almost certainly out as he continues to recover from an MCL injury. Alvaro Fernandez left the US Open Cup final early with a concussion, though indications now are that he may be recovered enough to be available tomorrow. Mike Fucito played his typical hard-running game in the final and is probably due for a break, but given our lack of other effective forward options he'll probably get a start. Sammy Ochoa is another candidate to get his first start after some sporadic substitute appearances, but is more likely in line for a role on the bench behind Nate Jaqua, who needs every chance he can get to get back into a goal-scoring groove after a period of woeful finishing.
Overall I expect Seattle to keep Philadelphia under heavy pressure and for the Union to rely on the counterattack to create chances, as opposing teams often do in Seattle. Even without Montero the Sounders should have enough attacking pressure to keep the Union midfield and fullbacks in a defensive crouch and force them to rely on balls over the top to Le Toux or sparse runs into the wings, much as happened with the Fire. If that happens and Seattle gets a similar result, we can extend the Supporters Shield race for at least another week.
- Osvaldo Alonso vs Justin Mapp - The best player in MLS history or just the best player in MLS right now? After his performance in the Open Cup final, my Honey Badger love-meter is in the red. It wasn't just the cherry-on-top slalom goal or the almost telepathically well-timed slide tackles to disrupt attacks. It was the constant pressure applied with just positioning to force attacks to back out and look for other openings. Philadelphia's lone goal against Chivas last weekend came when Mapp was allowed to wander up the middle of the midfield unmarked and launch a long range shot. That's something that won't happen with Alonso on the field, and if Mapp is neutralized it narrows the Union attacking options even more.
- Nate Jaqua vs Danny Califf - A victory in this matchup is less about the prospects of the team than about getting Jaqua's head right. His hold-up play in his occasional appearances this season has been okay, but his finishing has been non-existent. And without a premier striker like Montero to pair him up and make up for that offensive deficiency, the Seattle attack can quickly turn punchless. Seattle is in a much better place when Nate Jaqua is a threat and it's likely he's going to need to just grind away minutes until he gets a goal or two to reignite that threat.
- Le Toux vs Jhon Kennedy Hurtado - It's looking like Hurtado has recovered enough from that major ligament injury that he can be an every-day center back again, and that's all good news for Seattle, because when he's healthy he's one of the best in the league at that position. He has both the size and the speed to trouble any MLS forward from Dominic Oduro to Kenny Cooper and if he can keep Le Toux in check then the Union will quickly run out of offensive options.