As we prepare for game four in a season that is supposed to be the Seattle Sounders' coming out party as legitimate MLS Cup contenders, the team has yet to get the results to justify that hope. We've discussed and argued the disparity between the Rave Green's impressive play on the field and the lack of results it's produced ad nauseum, but the time will eventually approach when the results matter more than the play. The team needs to start seeing results quickly before the expectations get downgraded from contenders to Yet Another Western Conference Playoff Team (which admittedly can just as well turn into a title. Ask Colorado.)
San Jose are also looking to improve from YAWCPT to a title contender. Last year they exemplified the idea of a borderline playoff team. From the 11th game of the season to the 29th they were either 6th or 7th in the combined standings, and only dropped to 8th after the final game to edge into the playoffs. But whereas the Sounders are trying to alchemize their improvement from a number of new pieces acquired and returned from injury, the Quakes are going to try to keep riding the hot hand that is Chris Wondolowski.
After riding the pine in Houston for four years (despite showing flashes in the reserve league and cup competitions), he exploded onto the scene last season for San Jose, coming from nowhere to win the Golden Boot by scoring 18 goals in league play. But lost in the excitement over Wondo's performance is the fact that no one else on the team produced offensively, and that trend has continued this season. After a home shutout to Real Salt Lake in week one and a 2-0 away win over FC Dallas thanks to a Wondolowski brace, the man with the golden boots has now scored the last 12 regular season goals for San Jose — a stretch that extends all the way back to the beginning of September last year. The only other goals scored in that span were two playoff goals by Bobby Convey. And after Wondo's 18 last season, the next highest scorer on the team had 3. The club picked up Steven Lenhart in the offseason to provide scoring help, but is otherwise left hoping that Convey and Ryan Johnson will improve from last season to take some of the pressure off of their star.
Wondolowski is listed as a forward, but that's misleading. Last week against Dallas the team played in something like a 4-1-4-1, with Sam Cronin parked in the holding midfield role in front of the back four and Wondolowski pulled back into a midfield band alongside Tottenham loanee Simon Dawkins behind Johnson, who played as a lone man up top. From that position Wondo drifted around the field and made aggressive runs, much like you might see from Fredy Montero or Dwayne De Rosario, but whereas those players will dribble forward, he runs without the ball and waits for service, usually from Convey. His ability to sit in the gap between defenders and midfielders and time his offensive runs accounted for his two goals last week and likely most of last season's tally.
Lenhart is apparently still recovering from knee surgery, so the lineup this week will probably resemble last week's. Fullbacks Chris Leitch and Ramiro Corrales are notably very aggressive about pushing forward. More aggressive than wingers Convey (on the left) and Joey Gjertsen (on the right) even, which tends to cause the ball to bunch up about three-quarters of the way up the field, but the team is effective in getting the ball from there to Wondolowski and then hoping for magic. Dawkins will also be interesting to watch. He was bounced out of Tottenham (and then back in) as a marginal scoring midfielder, but was mostly invisible in the Dallas game as he seemed content to hold his line and let the play move past him. He may just need more time to gel with his teammates, but right now he doesn't look like the offensive support that Quakes fans were probably hoping for.
The Sounders will be without newly minted DP Montero, who's certainly the most threatening player on the team. On the other hand, he hasn't actually scored since September of last season (oddly enough, on the same day that someone other than Wondolowski scored for San Jose), so the Sounders are used to getting by without him tallying. Which is not to say that he isn't contributing when he isn't scoring. With Mike Fucito suffering yet another injury in training, the second forward spot seems to be wide open. We could see a big/big pairing with Nate Jaqua and O'Brian White. We could see Steve Zakuani pushed forward. We could see Lamar Neagle's first MLS start, or Pat Noonan, or Roger Levesque, or even a single forward. Regardless, the team needs to get a result in San Jose to create some momentum, and to get a result they'll likely need to score.
- Wondolowki vs Jeff Parke - Wondo likes to sit deep, which should match him up with Osvaldo Alonso, but Alonso is a dispossesser by trade. He extracts the ball and intercepts midfield passes, but Wondolowski moves up without the ball and it will be the job of the center backs — most likely Parke — to pick up his runs and fend him off. The only goal the Quakes scored against Seattle last season came when Wondolowki was left lurking unmarked on the far post. That can't happen.
- Zakuani vs Leitch - I'm assuming here that he stays in his traditional left wing role, since Sigi generally dislikes making changes and is more apt to make a like-for-like substitution for Montero than mix things around too much. But regardless, with Montero out Zakuani needs to be the danger man. Leitch is pushing 32 and Zakuani will have the speed advantage, which should create chances as well as prevent the fullback from moving up, which will help blunt the Quakes attack on their right sideline.
- Convey vs James Riley - Convey has ceded the scoring duties to Wondolowski, but he has his moments. He's a fast, accurate winger and if the right side gets shut down by Zakuani's speed, then the former Reading player will have the responsibility of keeping the left side alive. Riley says he's fully recovered from the concussion symptoms that kept him out of the Houston match, which is a relief to Sounders fans who will look to his steadiness to keep Convey under control.