It was almost exactly a year ago (only a single day away, in fact) that the 2013 Seattle Sounders hosted the Vancouver Whitecaps needing a win to earn back the Cascadia Cup. Those Sounders did not win. In fact, they lost heavily when Kekuta Manneh had a coming out party all over the Seattle defense en route to a hat trick. If you want to re-live that defensive collapse, enjoy. That loss did not technically lose the Cup. The Sounders had a second chance a few days later on the road in Portland and lost a close one there.
This season's Sounders are better than that version. Not only are they significantly more talented and better integrated (particularly in Clint Dempsey's understanding with the rest of the team), they are more mentally stout. There were hints that the team was suffering a similar late season swoon after winning the Open Cup, but they've won their last two, scoring 4 goals in each and remain favorites to win the Shield.
And that means this game isn't just for one trophy. It's for three. . all three that Seattle hasn't already won this season. The proximate goal is the rivalry Cup, which they earn with even a single point. But a win also keeps them favorites for the Supporters Shield. And winning that Shield gives them an advantage (however slight) in their quest for the ultimate prize: the MLS Cup.
|Matias Laba||If Vancouver wants to keep Seattle under 3 goals, Laba needs to have a big game in the defensive middle.|
|Mauro Rosales||It'll be tough to see Mau playing for the enemy. Service is his specialty.|
|Kekuta Manneh||Not usually their key attacker, but he'll have pleasant memories of tearing the place apart last season.|
Once again, their biggest challenge will be dealing with Vancouver's speed. Even with Darren Mattocks away on international duty, the Whitecaps have plenty of pace in Manneh and Erik Hurtado. Among Opta-tracked stats, they lead the league in fast breaks, shots off of fast breaks, one-on-ones with the keeper, and penalties won per game and are second in successful dribbles. That tells the story of a team that wants to run at and get behind a defense all game. Despite that theoretical danger, it's hard to say the offense has actually been consistently dangerous. Through August and September, they went on a 7 game run in which they scored only 3 goals total. They've been shut out 10 times this season.
Matters improved after they added Mauro Rosales from the dissolving Chivas USA. The ex-Sounder wouldn't seem to be an obvious fit, since his tendency to loft crosses from the wing wouldn't seem to add much to a team with little aerial threat. But he's been effective on the ground as well, and last week assisted both goals in a 2-0 home win over FC Dallas.
The defensive goal of the Sounders should be to keep Rosales on the wings sending in crosses, where they have little chance of finding any joy against Chad Marshall. And there's no reason to push up as suicidally high as they did in this fixture last season, when Djimi Traore and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado pushed nearly to the halfway line to create massive spaces behind for Manneh and Camilo to run into.
This is a case where DeAndre Yedlin being away on US duty isn't as much of a weakness as it might be in other games. The spaces he creates when he goes forward to add width to the attack are particularly vulnerable to fast teams like Vancouver. A more stay-at-home defender like Brad Evans or Michael Azira will provide more cover. And the downside of not getting that width is lessened against a team with weakness in central defense, which the 'Caps have thanks to Jay DeMerit's retirement due to repeated injuries.
At the other end, the key for Vancouver will be defensive midfielder Matias Laba. The Argentine holder has flourished since his move from Toronto FC and is now quietly one of the best defensive mids in the league. He doesn't have the striking tenacity of Osvaldo Alonso or Diego Chara, but he uses excellent positioning to deny passing lanes and recover loose balls. In the middle he'll be tasked with disrupting the interplay between Dempsey and Obafemi Martins that is the core of Seattle's hydra attack.
They're likely, in fact, to deploy two holding midfielders. Recently they've been playing Homegrown Player Russell Teibert there, which has returned some playing time to him after it seems he fell out of favor as a more attacking winger. Defensive mid is not yet a natural position for him, but he can help provide more numbers to clog the central channels.
Seattle is heavily favored here, as is natural for a Shield-contending team playing a middling team at home. But an upset isn't impossible. The key will be smart defense and finishing the bushel of chances that Martins and Dempsey will create. A draw wins the team's second trophy of the season, but puts the Shield in doubt. A win puts to rest the ghosts of the collapse of 2013.