About half of the remaining games this season will be the most important game of the year as Seattle Sounders FC is positioned to make a run at the Supporters' Shield. This week's opponent leads the East and by some measures New York Red Bulls are the leader in the Shield Race. Sunday's 6 PM match on ESPN will offer some clarity as to which of these Conference leaders is best.
Matt from Once a Metro is our guide in Three Questions.
SaH: How is Cahill doing as a more box-to-box style central mid this year?
OaM: With 8 goals and 4 assists, I'd say pretty good.
Cahill took a lot of flak early on for not scoring as readily as you would expect from a player with his pedigree, but he pretty quickly turned it around, scoring big goals. Winners against Toronto FC, the LA Galaxy and the Columbus Crew all came off Cahill's head.
But almost as important as his goals has been his effect in the locker room. Much has been made as of late about the 2013 Red Bulls' ability to win close games, a trait lacking in previous squads. That isn't just the doing of Head Coach Mike Petke, though it's certainly helped. Petke has got a lot of grit to go with the big names, and Cahill, and his desire to play hard and play hurt, has certainly helped imbue the team with it's never-say-die attitude.
SaH: Luis Robles was pretty bad at the start of the season. At that time he led All Star Game votes. Then he got really good. Which is the real Robles?
OaM: Luis Robles has only been with the team a year, so it's hard to gauge if it's him settling in or if he's just streaky.
I don't think the real Robles is the one we saw at the beginning of the year. He's clearly got some ability, and at one point was in the national team pool. But if you go back to the start of the year, there was always the threat that local boy and fan favorite Ryan Meara would challenge him for the starting job. But Meara stayed hurt and the job, almost by default, ended up in Robles' hands. I'm not sure if that's given him the comfort to settle into the role, if he's just hot, or what, but he's certainly been playing better.
If I had to guess, I'd say Robles is closer to the player we're seeing now than the player he was at the start of the season. At the same time, part of me wonders if he'll be this good consistently.
SaH: Reader Garrett wants to know what Petke is doing differently this year and why is it working?
OaM: While many of the names stayed the same -- Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, Dax McCarty, Markus Holgersson, Roy Miller -- it's important to note that Mike Petke has a completely new cast of players, coaches and front office staff. Really, he didn't find some switch Backe couldn't. Petke's got a roster more reflective of his personality as a coach, has a better support staff in the front office and his backroom staff is full of MLS veterans.
But away from circumstance, Petke simply seems hungrier. As experienced as Backe was, he had a certain aloofness that made it seem like the Red Bulls coaching gig didn't mean much to him. The team's all-time leader in minutes and yellow cards, Petke's love for the Red Bulls (and the MetroStars before them) is well-documented. He has the team prepared, motivated and is willing to do whatever it takes -- including subs! -- to win. Of course, it hasn't always worked out that way, but it's had a greater effect than whatever Backe was doing.
Significant Absences (Injury, Accumulation, Fear):Roy Miller (Achilles), Bradley Wright-Phillips (hamstring), Jamison Olave (turf)
I'm leaving Henry off the list because something tells me he'll travel and end up on the bench. It's a completely unsubstantiated gut feeling, but I can't shake it.
Projected Lineup: Robles; Carney, Holgersson, Sekagya, Kimura; Steele, McCarty, Alexander, Sam; Cahill, Espindola
OaM: A lot has been made about the Red Bulls' injury and turf problems. But the Sounders are having their own set of injury issues with both Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson questionable for Sunday's game. Plus, Zach Scott will take a seat after being red carded last week against the Galaxy. What kind of effect will this have on the Sounders?
SaH: Sigi Schmid has gotten used to lineup juggling. In past seasons it was mainly about balancing the USOC, CCL and MLS. This year the USMNT and injuries have forced him to go through 27 different lineups in 28 MLS games (they didn't repeat any in their CCL knockout run nor in the Open Cup loss). During that time the four attacking positions have seen Mauro Rosales start the most. He's only got 20 of those. At left mid there are six players that have between three and seven starts. The two forward spots were in a three man rotation before Dempsey showed up, so losing two (if that's what happens) Seattle will still have two eight goal scorers.
The backline will be without Scott. But that still leaves Djimi Traore and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Ianni. Since Olave isn't coming and Red Bull isn't a huge heading threat in run of play the need for Scott is reduced. Seattle should be OK there as well. Yes, this seems braggadocios, but after seeing the Sounders start "sub-par" lineups all season and still win this much it is hard not to be confident.
OaM:: Speaking of Dempsey, he hasn't done much of anything yet save some fancy skill moves against RSL. When do you guys start worrying?
SaH: Next year.
If Seattle gets a part-time player that doesn't score or assist but still challenges for the Shield and Cup what's the deal? Yeah, he's paid a ton. Roth and Hanauer have the money. His cap hit is pretty small. The club didn't lose a draft pick. What's the harm in having Dempsey around pulling off FIFA Street stunts if the club is winning?
OaM: The Sounders have been hot as of late. How long can they keep this up?
SaH: Not forever. The end of season run for Seattle is brutal. There is no way that they keep up the pace they've had in the past 10 matches (8-1-1) in the next six. Hosting Red Bull, going to Rapids, hosting Vancouver, going to Portland, going to Dallas and hosting LA. Every team is in the Playoff hunt. Two could make a run at the Shield. If Seattle powers through to win the regular season title they'd do it in a clearly defining fashion. They may be the favorites, but proving it will be a hell of a ride.
Significant Absences: Zach Scott (suspension), Dempsey (hamstring, might be available). Johnson and Joseph have returned to practice and I would rate as likely to play.
Projected Lineup: Gspurning; Gonzalez, Traore, Hurtado, Yedlin; Alonso; Neagle, Evans, Rosales; Johnson, Martins