Today's game has a lot on the line for both teams. The Seattle Sounders are comfortably in the playoffs but want to fend off FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake in the race for the second spot in the West (the Supporters Shield now being out of reach barring a historical collapse by the LA Galaxy). DC United is at 11th in the table, but given their games in hand should be slotted in around 9th or 10th. That makes every game a critical chance to stay in playoff position.
But below the surface details of the match there's an undercurrent in this game of the dark mortality inherent in a physical sport — the mortality that professional athletes dare not face and dare not dwell on for fear that they will flinch at the critical moments and lose their edge. Just under two years ago, DC United forward Charlie Davies was in an auto accident that nearly ended his life, much less his professional career. Among other injuries, his leg was broken and it has taken until this season for him to begin to approach the player he was before the accident. It was the Seattle Sounders fans' massive show of support for Davies after those injuries that endeared them to the national team player and created a mutual affection that will probably blunt any of the typical heckling an opposing star would get.
In late April, it was the Sounders' Steve Zakuani who had his leg broken in a horrific and (unfortunately) unforgettable on-field incident in Colorado. He is only now beginning to participate in training at speed and it will likely be well into next season before we see the Zakuani that began this season. After winning that jagged and emotionally drained game the Sounders won once again in an emphatic emotional tribute match over Toronto FC, but then a loss to this DC United kicked off a stretch of only one win in 5 matches in which the Sounders failed to score more than 1 goal in any game. It was a stretch that forced Seattle to learn to cope without Zakuani.
And finally last week DC United's Chris Pontius had his leg broken (perversely in a tackle in which he was the worst offender) after a clinical game at forward in which he fed Davies three tremendous balls that resulted in three goals (earning Davies Player of the Week honors, which lays bare the ridiculousness of a system that rewards three tap-ins over three gorgeous assists). He is only beginning to come to terms with the nature of his injury and his path to recovery and DC United has yet to learn to cope without him, but both he and Zakuani can take heart from a mended Charlie Davies running across the Xbox Pitch.
Without Pontius, DC will likely line up with Josh Wolff up top. He's a dangerous player himself and there shouldn't be much of a dropoff. It's the same pairing that joined to burn the Sounders in their earlier meeting this season on two nearly identical goals. And now they have occasional MVP candidate Dwayne De Rosario lurking as a playmaker and attacking force behind them. United has an average number of goals in the league despite having by far the fewest shots taken. That's an indication of a team that's frequently counterattacking — they'll get less time in the offensive third but what time it does get will usually involve the opposing defenders desperately sprinting to try to cut out a cross. And a counterattacking style will be what's called for in a tough road environment across three time zones, so don't expect anything different tomorrow.
When last these teams met the DC United defense was a shambles. That's a weakness that Seattle failed to capitalize on in RFK and in the meantime it seems they've sorted out those problems. DC has given up more than one goal to an opponent only once in the last two and a half months (to Toronto FC, oddly). Now breaking them down will take a little more work, though Seattle has shown the ability to break any team down in the last few months.
The Sounders' lineup should only be minimally impacted by the long trek to Costa Rica to play Herediano. Backups were playing at both fullback position, one center back, at defensive midfield, one forward, and at left wing. Only Kasey Keller, Fredy Montero, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, and Alvaro Fernandez played as typical starters, and Hurtado is out of the DC United match anyway after one of the most ridiculous red card ejections in recent memory.
- Osvaldo Alonso vs De Rosario - If DC United are going to do most of their threatening on counterattacks, Alonso will be critical in not creating them with loose passes in the midfield and shutting them down when they do occur. His counterpoint and the opposing player most likely to be occupying his space will be De Rosario, who'll be looking to trigger those counterattacks with through balls to Wolff and Davies (as well as some likely long shots of his own). I expect Alonso to be paired with Brad Evans, as he provides the most consistent defensive help from the other central midfield position and they'll likely need to double up on De Rosario consitently.
- Mauro Rosales vs Daniel Woolard - Who? Last season Woolard was playing for the Carolina Railhawks. Rosales was playing for River Plate. Woolard has been relied on to stabilize the DC backline and has held down the starting job for most of the season, but our MVP candidate-slash-trialist will be fully rested and ready to play. Last time Rosales was rested through a midweek CCL victory, Seattle ran roughshod over Columbus 6-2. What chances Chivas did have last week tended to come down their right side, and Rosales should get his chances. Even a little penalty redemption might not be out of line.
- Montero vs Clyde Simms - Simms is a quiet workhorse as a holding midfielder for DC United. If Montero plays his typical withdrawn Trequartista role then Simms will be responsible for tracking him across the field. This will be the position where Montero can provide a killer ball to Mike Fucito or one of the wingers, or take a deadly long shot himself.