Today's matchup between the Seattle Sounders and Chicago Fire marks the first time the Sounders play their second match against an opponent in 2011. The first meeting in early April resulted in a Sounders win that kicked off a stretch of three wins in four games, which went a long way towards rescuing a disappointing start to the season. This time Seattle meets Chicago in the midst of a good stretch of two wins in three and only one loss in 5 and hopes to continue the good run into a soft June schedule which the Rave Green must capitalize on to contend for one of the top three positions in the Western Conference.
The weather that the Sounders have faced this season has gone beyond bizarre into a sort of sick meteorological joke. Before the Real Salt Lake we had already compiled stats that showed that the Sounders had played by far the wettest schedule in the league — and before you blame the Pacific Northwest keep in mind that they played in twice as much rain on the road as at home. Then they went on to face a Real Salt Lake team that had yet to play in any rain at home — and naturally it poured buckets. And now after reports last week that Chicago would be hot and sunny for this game it turns out that it will be hot. . and thunderstorymy. The humidity will make 88-degree weather feel like 95 and there's a strong likelihood of more buckets of rain. As always we pin our hopes on the assumption that we'll be much more used to it than the opponent, but the Sounders may once again have a tough time producing a beautiful game with more wet conditions — and this time in an oven.
After the last match in Seattle I suggested that Chicago was a team with a bright future and predicted a playoff spot. The quick midfield ball movement through Marco Pappa and the strong and in-synch attacking tandem of Diego Chaves and Gaston Puerari impressed me as being among the better offensive setups in the league. Unfortunately, I should have paid more attention to their defense. While the offensive haul of 15 goals in 11 games puts them among the league leaders in goal scoring pace, they've allowed 19 in that same span. A new pairing at center back, a rookie right back, and a young goalkeeper have so far been a recipe for goals allowed. The Fire have only managed a single shutout this season (against the Vancouver Whitecaps, which was also perversely the only game in which Chicago hasn't scored). So if the Sounders earn points tonight, they'll likely have to score some goals to do it.
They'll also benefit from a Fire lineup that's in flux. This will be the first game for interim manager Frank Klopas after Carlos de los Cobos was fired last week. Without any stats on hand to back me up, I'll say that it's my impression that teams tend to play better immediately after a coaching change, so we should expect to see a little more belief and intensity. And Klopas looks to be returning the team to a more familiar 4-4-2 after de los Cobos' experiments with a 3-5-2. On the other hand, Pappa (who's unquestionably their best player) is away on international duty for the Gold Cup and Patrick Nyarko is another critical offensive piece who's likely to be out with a concussion. And despite what looked like a good forward tandem between Chaves and Puerari, Colombian target man Cristian Nazarit is likely to start in place of Puerari after doing so last week and sending a shot off the post in his first match.
The Sounders injury situation has clarified somewhat. Steve Zakuani and O'Brian White remain out indefinitely with long term injuries. And after last week's abortive attempt to start, Alvaro Fernandez is out with a hamstring pull. Other than that the usual Seattle litany of minor injuries to offensive cogs Fredy Montero, Mike Fucito, Nate Jaqua, Mauro Rosales, Brad Evans, etc seems to have taken a break for the week so we should have more depth to rely on. The big lineup questions are the replacement for Fernandez on the left wing and whether Montero starts the game on the bench again. Fucito has played left wing in the past and after two strong starts he's made a strong claim for another one. But if Montero starts the game on the pine then Fucito is his best replacement up top and the left wing likely goes to Lamar Neagle to prove he can play a well-rounded 90-minute game rather than just as a late game offensive substitution.
- Evans vs Logan Pause - With Pappa out the Sounders will have a chance to boss around the central midfield. Evans and Osvaldo Alonso combine for a tandem that can dominate possession stats in the central midfield as both are adept at winning the ball and distributing forward. Pause is the key to Chicago's midfield possession and if Evans can keep possession from him the Fire offense can be starved of service.
- Tyson Wahl vs Dominic Oduro - Despite being ignominiously shipped over from Houston for an injured player after missing a sitter in the Dynamo season opener, Oduro has played well for Chicago. He has 3 goals and 2 assists already this season and with Nyarko out he will be tasked with providing the speed on the flank to get by the Sounders midfield. Wahl has earned a starting job over Leo Gonzalez by being a better distributor of the ball up the pitch, but he's a defensive downgrade from the Costa Rican and will need plenty of help dealing with Oduro or we're going to see a lot of dangerous crosses and attacks from the right wing.
- Neagle/Fucito vs Jalil Anibaba - Both of the two Sounders with a shot at the left wing bring dangerous pace, which should help return Seattle to the familiar offense from the last two seasons that featured Steve Zakuani blowing by opposing right backs. Anibaba is a first round draft pick that's shown the usual combination of athletic brilliance and bad mistakes. Getting behind him on the left wing could unlock a Chicago Fire defense that's shown thus far that it can be easy to penetrate. On the other hand, this is the same flank as the Wahl/Oduro pairing and whoever plays here will need to provide some defensive presence, which neither Fucito nor Neagle have showed in any great supply thus far. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if this fact is enough to push Sigi into starting Gonzalez at left back instead, though he tends to ride a hot roster as far as he can.