There are a surprising number of threads that connect the Seattle Sounders to the Philadelphia Union. Superficially, there's Sebastien Le Toux on the field, as he tries to build on the tremendous offensive season he had last year immediately after being left off of Seattle's protected list. And will we ever hear the end of that? Probably not, even though the critics generally don't have much input on how a season of Le Toux as a sub behind Fredy Montero and Nate Jaqua would have been an improvement over, say, James Riley being in the right back position. But that's neither here nor there.
More significantly, the Union were the first expansion team after the Sounders, and there was an open question as to whether the incredible success of the Sounders both on and off the pitch was a fluke or the beginning of a new era for instantly competitive expansion teams. The Union proved that the off-the-pitch success of Garber-era expansion would continue (through Portland and Vancouver and presumably beyond), but the on-field results were more typical of an expansion franchise in needing at least a season to gel before making a playoff run. Sometimes a season is all it takes, as Chivas USA proved before their long string of playoff appearances. And sometimes you're Toronto FC. The Union currently lead the Eastern Conference and clearly the expectations in Philadelphia are that this is the year for the playoffs.
Which leads us to the next connection between the Sounders and the Union. Both have had a beginning stretch of the season in which game outcomes have in large part not matched the play on the field. We've discussed the beginning of the Sounders' season ad nauseum and hopefully the Chicago result puts that era behind us, but it was obvious that the string of games in which the team was beaten by a Save of the Week or a Goal of the Week (or both) would have to end and the quality that the team was showing on the field would win out.
The Union, on the other hand, have had the opposite 'problem'. Their play on the field has been improved over last season, but it's probably not worthy of a 3 and 1 record. Through their first four games the Union have been outshot by 22 shots, thanks mostly to a league worst 30 shots generated, including an almost incredible 9 total shots generated in the first half of games (For comparison, the Sounders are averaging 9 shots in the first half through 5 games). And yet the Union have done just enough to win games. Last week Juan Agudelo hit the woodwork twice for the Red Bulls and Tim Ream — a player getting significant national team minutes thanks in large part to his composure and ability with the ball at his feed — made a truly awful pass in the backfield and the Union walked out with another headscratcher of a 1-0 victory.
That's not to say the Union's results are all luck. The defense has clearly solidified with the replacement of a revolving door of keepers with the steady Faryd Mondragon and the addition of compatriot Carlos Valdes to play alongside Danny Califf. The team plays defense across the entire pitch with heavy pressure on the ball and a tight, well-disciplined formation (as you'd expect from a Piotr Nowak team). But if the team continues to give up a net 5 shots a game, their stay at the top of the East will be brief.
A large part of their offensive dropoff has been the lack of production by Le Toux. Last season the Frenchman finished with 14 goals and 11 assists — one of only two players to get the double-double (along with Fredy Montero, who had 10 and 10). Through 5 games, he had already scored four goals, thanks in large part to a hat trick in the inaugural home game. But thus far he doesn't seem to pair with Carlos Ruiz as well as he did with Alejandro Moreno and his nonstop motor is not resulting in the scoring chances he found last season.
The Union line up in a pretty typical 4-4-2 with Le Toux and Ruiz paired up top. Stefani Miglioranzi plays behind the forwards in a box to box role and has a work rate that matches Le Toux's. He's generally paired with Brian Carroll, though he pulled a hamstring early in the New York match and was replaced with US youth international Amobi Okugo. Most of the offense seems to generate out of the center of the field as side midfielders Justin Mapp and Keon Daniel really play as midfielders more than wingers. Their role in the offense seems to be primarily to get the ball up to Le Toux and Ruiz. Overall the Sounders have the talent and experience to bottle up the Union's offense. It'll just be a matter of hoping there's no Goal of the Week candidate striking again. I expect the game will largely come down to whether the Seattle attack will have the patience to pick out holes in what will be a disciplined defense.
- Mauro Rosales vs Valdes - With the bigger Califf likely tasked with dealing with the target forward (likely to be O'Brian White, but possibly Jaqua), the Colombian defender will be more involved with the withdrawn forward. We still don't know whether that will be Fredy Montero, but with the team showing that they can score without the DP, Sigi's likely to be more inclined to give him more recuperation with a bench stint. That leaves Rosales to have a go at the Union. His quick passing ability would be a key to getting through a solid two lines of defenders.
- Jhon Kennedy Hurtado vs Le Toux - The Frenchman will no doubt be keen to reignite his slowly starting season against the team that left him exposed last year. The Sounders have shown themselves vulnerable to the counter this season, and Le Toux has the pace and drive to be ready for balls at the end of a counter. Hurtado (and Jeff Parke) will need to be careful to keep the ball away from him.
- Kasey Keller vs Ruiz - It seems every game this season has featured a tremendous shot against the Sounders, usually from distance. Most of them — like Juninho's — have been unsaveable. If there's going to be anyone on the Union to hit one from distance, it'll likely be Ruiz, who tested Bouna Coundoul twice from 35 yards out or more last week. Keller will probably have to make at least one great save to keep the Union off the scoreboard.