The only regular season match between the Sounders and the New York Red Bulls this year comes at a pivotal point in the season for both teams. The Sounders are greedily collecting points to stave off the Galaxy in their quest for their first Supporters Shield (and first league hardware). Meanwhile, the Red Bulls are hovering just above a coin-flip to make it into the playoffs a year after they won the Shield themselves.
Both teams are coming off of recent non-league action. The Sounders just won the US Open Cup in Chester on Tuesday, while on Wednesday in CCL action the Red Bulls lost to the Impact, who can make a solid claim to be the worst team in the league. But that result isn't indicative of the Red Bulls' league form, especially at home. They've won their last four home league games and haven't lost at home since Portland beat them 2-1 in May. The symmetry of another Cascadia team giving them their next home loss would be pleasant, but more likely a draw has to be considered a good result here, probably for both sides.
This is also likely the last time the Sounders face Thierry Henry, who on a wow-per-minute basis is the most talented player the league has ever seen. This is the last year of Henry's Red Bulls contract and he's likely to either retire or move back to Europe for his swan song. And even if he can be convinced to stay in the league another year, the one match between New York and Seattle next season would be at CenturyLink, on turf — which we know is the Frenchman's kryptonite. There's also the slim odds of a playoff matchup, which would have to be an MLS Cup Final (again, played in Seattle, though presumably he'd be willing to play on turf for a trophy). But if I had to bet I'd say this is the last time Henry suits up against the Rave Green.
What quality the Red Bulls have is built around their offense (and largely around Henry). Their 44 goals scored is tops in the Eastern Conference (though it'd only be average among playoff teams in the West). They have a reputation for flowing, technical offense, but the reality is they have the most crossing-and-heading offense in the league. They're first in the league in crosses, accurate crosses, and headed goals and second in headed shots. Which goes to show that there are a lot of ways to head the ball in. You can be a bashing team like San Jose of yore that lumps the ball into a pack of players in the box and tries to win with strength and numbers, or you can switch the ball to the wings for crosses that find players free on the back post. Or you can be a mix. Tim Cahill certainly lends himself to the physical, Yallop-approved style of battering defenders aside to get to a header.
|Bradley Wright-Phillips||Is he actually one of the best forwards in league history or does he just get to play next to Henry? Ask Kenny Cooper.|
|Dax McCarty||If the Red Bull defense is going to slow Seattle's attack, McCarty has to have a very good game in defensive midfield.|
So the Sounders' most important defensive weapon in this match will be Chad Marshall, who dominates aerial balls like no other defender in the league (possibly in its history). He's so good in the air that just winning balls is child's play. He challenges himself to win balls and place them perfectly to for his midfielders to spring counter-attacks. And a partnership with Zach Scott, who can be vulnerable against pace but is also stout in the air, might be perfect for this match, assuming the venerable Sounder is recovered from a draining Open Cup final.
If they can cut out the aerial crosses and can deny service to the Golden Boot leading Bradley Wright-Phillips, they can go a long way toward neutering a potent offense. That involves winning in the air, keeping a body on Henry at all times (that body likely being Osvaldo Alonso) and tracking the wings, from where much of New York's buildup comes. That's especially true now that Henry has moved out to wing forward in a 4-3-3, though he still drifts inside. Seattle will have to do an honest job marking Lloyd Sam and fullback Roy Miller to keep them from getting free in the corner for those dangerous crosses.
The other end of the pitch is the Red Bulls' weakness and the reason they're still scrabbling for a playoff spot despite their offense. They have the most goals conceded (41) of any team currently in playoff position, thanks to a defense that's simultaneously too young and too old. Jamison Olave is supposed to be the heart of the defensive line, but he's been consistently error-prone and at 33 years old may be in the twilight of his career. He's been variously paired with both the equally-33-and-error-prone Ibrahim Sekagya and home grown signing Matt Miazga, who's shown potential as a youth national team player but often looks out of his depth against the top forwards in MLS.
Having Miller back from the Copa Centroamericana will be a boost to the flank defense on DeAndre Yedlin's side, but everyone knows the Sounders will primarily attacking through the middle and straight at the fragile center back pairing. Shielding them will be the job of defensive midfielder Dax McCarty. McCarty is an interesting player who's revitalized his career as a defensive mid after some fraught early years as a playmaker with FC Dallas. He's still not on the level of Alonso or Kyle Beckerman, but he's one of the better midfielders in the league at winning possession and transitioning quickly to attack. Whether he's good enough to protect their defense from the Sounders' talented attack may be the challenge that decides whether Seattle can win this game or not. Complicating Seattle's job is the fact that Clint Dempsey went the distance in the overtime Open Cup victory on Tuesday. The Red Bulls put out a reserve lineup on Wednesday (and paid the price for it), but now they'll be fresh against a player who was already reportedly tired before going 120 minutes midweek. Given that, I would be surprised if Dempsey starts, so we're likely to deploy the version of the Hydra that pairs Obafemi Martins with Kenny Cooper or Chad Barrett, at least to start.
I wouldn't favor either team to get a shutout in this one. Even if Marshall and the rest of Seattle's defense can neuter New York's aerial service, I think the Red Bulls still have enough quality to get at least one goal. And even if Dempsey is only a sub, I think the Sounders attack is more than good enough to get past the Red Bulls' shaky defense. Even so, a draw here on the road in the last East Coast trip of the season is a fine result before coming home to try to put some distance over the Galaxy in the Shield race.