The Seattle Sounders move on to part two of a very challenging opening to the 2011 season tomorrow versus the New York Red Bulls. If you order the schedule chronologically, the Sounders played or are playing in games one, four, and eleven, with a cross-country trip between each game. And the first two of the three are versus consensus MLS Cup contenders. Add the off-the-field drama of the sudden departure of Designated Player Blaise Nkufo and the injuries to key players Brad Evans, Steve Zakuani, and Nate Jaqua and the Sounders face a stretch of games that's likely to be as difficult as any other this season. Given that, coming out of this series with at least four points should be considered a decent result. Unfortunately, the 1-0 loss in MLS First Kick to the LA Galaxy means the pressure's on to get a result in New York tomorrow.
While the first game was against an MLS Cup contender that may well be in the final season of its current run, this one features a New York team that's on the rise. Hans Backe continues to assemble a squad that features experience, skill, and raw speed. Superstar Thierry Henry has gone through his first full preseason with the team and will no doubt be more accustomed to the league and more in tune with his teammates. He's paired up top with teenage US national team forward Juan Agudelo in a forward partnership that should be as dangerous as any in the league. Dane Richards is a burner on the right wing in the mold of Sanna Nyassi, but with more offensive composure. Next to him is Joel Lindpere, a canny signing that should be the model for non-DP European players in MLS. He's skilled, physical, and he works hard without drama. It would be no surprise if the same will be said of new signing Jan Gunnar Solli, who's likely to play opposite Richards on the left.
The center of the back should be rock solid with another young national teamer in Tim Ream sitting alongside veteran Rafa Marquez, who drops into the backline this season, where his age shouldn't be a liability.
If there's any weakness on this New York team, it might be in the fullbacks and at keeper. New signing Teemu Tainio will be on the right and the inconsistent Roy Miller on the left. Unfortunately, Steve Zakuani is listed as questionable for the game despite playing in the opener, so Tainio may be spared the prospect of trying to hold him off. Meanwhile, Bouna Coundoul continues to be an erratic player between the posts. One moment he can display tremendous reflexes and athleticism to make a seemingly impossible save, and the next make a baffling decision that results in a goal. The Sounders will want to keep the pressure on to try to exploit those decisions.
If the Sounders come out of New York without anything to show for it, there's going to be a lot of handwringing, particularly in the national punditry. But the fact remains that Seattle looked good in difficult conditions in the first game and were unfortunate to come out with a loss. Their season won't be decided in this stretch, no matter what happens.