Friday night's third match of the UniMas triple-header is between Supporters' Shield contenders. Locally JOEtv will also have the match. D.C. United has a commanding lead in that race with 35 points, though they've played 20 matches to Seattle Sounders FC's 18. Seattle is at 29 points.
Sounders will need to replace three players on international duty (Dempsey, Evans, Pappa) and last year's MVP candidate Obafemi Martins is also still out. United also lacks some key players. Hamid, Pontiue and Franklin are all injured.
Ben from Black and Red United answers Three Questions so you can be prepared for tonight's 8 PM match.
SaH: Chris Rolfe looks every bit as good as he did during his first stint in MLS, when he left in 2009. What's been the key to his rebirth?
B&RU: A lot of it just comes down to a change of scenery, at least according to Rolfe in an interview he gave to the Chicago Tribune. After coming back from Europe, he had gotten a little complacent, and it seems like the system that Frank Yallop was using was not as suited for Rolfe as other systems had been. Getting to United allowed him a fresh start in a new way of playing.
Also, it helps when you have the teammates that United has been able to provide for him, like Fabian Espindola, Davy Arnaud, Sean Franklin, and Perry Kitchen. Once Rolfe got his confidence back, he has been one of the two or three most important players on this team, and helped United get off to a fast start even without Fabian Espindola.
SaH: Why is a team that wins headers and has a great defense struggling with set-piece defense?
B&RU: Its an interesting question, and no one clear answer. Last year, United's strategy was to force the ball out wide and make opponents cross the ball in, where either Bill Hamid would grab it or Bobby Boswell or Steve Birnbaum would head it away. This season, there have been a lot more moving pieces on defense: Steve Birnbaum was hurt and is only recently integrating back into the lineup; Bill Hamid has been in and out with various knocks and is going to miss tonight's game; Sean Franklin has been out for a month or so, and he can be good in the air. Last season, the same defense played most every game together, whereas this season, there have been a lot of players shuffling in and out of the lineup.
SaH: Hamid gets most of the credit for the defense, but it's not all him, is it?
B&RU: Bill Hamid should get a lot of the credit, but so too should Bobby Boswell. He was a bit of a spare part in Houston when D.C. United acquired him in the re-entry draft, and his veteran leadership really set a new direction for that defense. Steve Birnbaum and Kofi Opare have both been able to learn from Boswell, and both are very good partners to him in the center of defense. When Sean Franklin is healthy, he is also one of the best right backs in the league, though he often seems to fly under the radar. Left back is a position that could use some improvement, but both Chris Korb and Taylor Kemp are solid enough MLS squad players.
Significant absences: Bill Hamid (injured finger), Chris Pontius (calf), Sean Franklin (achilles), Michael Farfan (hamstring), and, of course, Eddie Johnson
Projected lineup: Andrew Dykstra; Chris Korb, Bobby Boswell, Steve Birnbaum, Taylor Kemp; Nick DeLeon, Davy Arnaud, Perry Kitchen, Chris Rolfe; Fabian Espindola, Luis Silva
B&RU: Seattle has been without the services of Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins for the past three matches, in which they've been outscored 7-1; is there anyone one the roster that can step up in their absence?
SaH: Nope. It's not just because those two are awesome and MVP candidates. It's because after three opportunities no one has shown that they are going to take the extra playing time and touches successfully. Ideally players like Lamar Neagle and Chad Barrett would be the goal scorers. Both can be, but there is little indication that they will be soon. The midfield isn't helping them be goal dangerous. They are not scoring at the rare times that the midfield does provide. July is going to be a defining month. They can either tread water or fall by the wayside and it's up to Lamar and Barrett to determine what happens.
B&RU: Chad Marshall and Bobby Boswell were the consensus best central defenders last season; is the recent dip in defense on him alone, or is it more a confluence of factors?
SaH: It's a lot of stuff. As usual a major part of Seattle's defense is Osvaldo Alonso. He's been out, but could return tonight. On top of that the right back has changed, the fourth string left back started the last match. So the defensive part of the midfield is a mess and the backline is not what is designed to be. While the midfield will get better soon, the preferred partner at CB is Brad Evans and he's off with the United States for the Gold Cup.
Zach Scott will start in Evans' place. Scott is a hard contact, aerial duel specialist. Off Seattle's defenders he's the most likely to launch the ball long and the most likely to make a mistake with a short pass. Seattle should be better on set-piece defense and the drop off if Alonso's back will not be extreme.
B&RU: Osvaldo Alonso has been battling injury, but is back at full training now; how does he change Seattle if he's back in the lineup on Friday?
SaH: It's the difference between the Sounders looking like one of those schlub teams that doesn't make the Playoffs and a team that makes the Play-In Round. Alonso's defensive presence is well known at this point, but pigeonholing his as just a 3rd CB that wins the ball is a mistake. He is one of the best passers in the league and starts Seattle's transitions with probing long balls or rhythmic short passes. Like most DPs that earn their pay he makes the players around him better. With Alonso on the field Pineda is a top box-to-box CM in MLS. Without Ozzie Pineda has looked awful.
For the Black & Red confidence in points should come right when the lineup card discludes Ozzie or includes him.
Absences: Dempsey (USA), Evans (USA), Pappa (GUA), Martins (adductor), Correa (adductor) are all out. Gonzalez, Remick, Alonso are questionable.
Lineup: Frei; Fisher, Scott, Marshall, Mears; Thomas, Alonso, Roldan, Rose; Neagle, Barrett