Entering the MLS Cup Playoffs the Seattle Sounders were the hottest team in the Western Conference. The second best team in the final six games of the regular season? The Colorado Rapids. Over the season the Rapids finished second in the league (15-6-13 +7, 4-6-7 -6 on the road). They only had one poor stretch. Seattle, on the other hand, started horribly and stayed that way for the first half the year. Then, Brian Schmetzer and Nicolas Lodeiro happened.
Both teams have injury concerns. Colorado’s are more recent, dropping players from their starting XI. Seattle used the international break to get more healthy, so their starting XI probably gets a boost. Tuesday’s 7 PM match (FS1, FSD) is leg one of a two-leg aggregate goal (away goal tie-breaker) series.
Abbie from Burgundy Wave answers Four Questions. I answer Three Questions. Math is hard.
SaH: What kind of keeper is Zach MacMath?
BW: Zac MacMath relies on his positioning more than anything else. He isn't going to make those super athletic saves, but his record before Tim Howard came this season speaks for itself (6 shutouts and 0.76 GAA).
SaH: If Jermaine Jones lacks energy who can Pablo put in as a 3rd CM?
BW: I would expect either Kevin Doyle or Dillon Powers to go there. I think Doyle is a better choice than Powers, but we've seen both of those guys in the #10 spot (though Doyle has been there more lately). Doyle is faster and can distribute the ball better than Powers can. That being said, in the last match against LA, Pablo put Jones in the 6/8 spot with Sam Cronin. If he started there and ran out of steam, I would expect Micheal Azira (who typically plays back there) to come in, or Dillon Powers could go here as well.
SaH: Where will the offense come from?
BW: It kind of depends on what happens with the starting lineup. If Pablo starts with a faster front line, which would include Marlon Hairston, Dominique Badji, and Sebastien Le Toux, we have the option to attack with speed on the wings from the two wide midfielders, or having Badji (as our #9) getting in behind the center backs and stretching the defense. If Doyle is in the 10, he can also make late runs and get a head on crosses. Doyle or even Jones (if he is in), can follow the play and clean up anything that comes back out.
If Pablo goes back to more of the lineup that we saw earlier this season, we may have Doyle up top and Le Toux and Badji out wide, but no Marlon Hairston. This front line doesn't put a ton of pressure on the other team's back line and could have some issues getting a goal. That being said, with this lineup, Jones is likely to be in the #10 spot and will obviously have a more active role in distributing the ball for the offense. In his first eight games with the Rapids, the team averaged 2.25 ppg when Jones was in this position (the team averaged 1.71 for the entire season).
SaH: Which former Sounders has meant the most to the Rapids in this strong season?
BW: I would go with Micheal Azira. He and Sam Cronin work really well together and have been an integral part of the Rapids' success this season.
Projected Lineup (note, this is not my *ideal* lineup):
Zac MacMath; Marc Burch, Axel Sjoberg, Jared Watts, Eric Miller; Micheal Azira, Sam Cronin; Dominique Badji, Jermaine Jones, Sebastien Le Toux; Kevin Doyle
BW: If the Rapids can shut down Lodeiro, what other offensive weapons should they worry about?
SaH: Number one is Jordan Morris. His health status is your next question, so let's focus on his play on the field. His 12 goals and 4 assists (tied for 3rd on the team) in the regular season was the offense, particularly pre-Lodeiro. While he only has one assist in the playoffs so far, it was a good example of how he assists others. Jordan's key passes usually come when he's cutting towards goal forcing the defense to collapse. He will then slip a ball across or drop it back to a Lodeiro or Valdez.
Nelson Haedo Valdez is that other attacking option. The Paraguayan showed up in the playoffs. With three goals (two game winners) the once non-scoring forward forced his way back into the starting lineup. He is a solid header of the ball, uses hold-up play well and is strong defensively. Now that he is providing support in the box score Valdez could be starting even if everyone is fully healthy. Joevin Jones has been his key provider. Jones, playing with a broken toe, is the type of left back that gets forward as often as possible. When he uses low crosses he can find a Morris, Valdez, Lodeiro and maybe create something.
There are a handful of possible contributors, but none were effective on the full season or in the playoffs. They could provide some danger, but Seattle cannot count on them notching an assist or scoring.
BW: Considering that Jordan Morris missed the USMNT match with a hamstring injury but had a couple weeks to recover, what role do you expect him to play in the first leg?
SaH: Of all the injuries plaguing the Sounders entering leg one this is the one with the greatest impact, and the least knowable. Whereas Ivanschitz, Fernandez, Evans and Torres all look quite likely to play the status of Jordan is less firm. At best he's 50/50. The good news is the injury was minor enough he was called up to US training to verify the extent. He traveled to Columbus and back after it was confirmed that he wouldn't be able to play against Mexico and Costa Rica. He was also part of a promotional event at the Seahawks game on Sunday. At this point my best guess is that he starts, but is pulled if the Sounders get a lead in the second half.
BW: In a recent article on Sounder at Heart, you said that one of the routes to success for the Sounders was set piece goals. Given that the Rapids defend set pieces extraordinarily well, have the Sounders had success against other teams with stout defenses, like LA for example? What is it about the Sounders in particular that you think will give them the success that other teams haven't had against the Rapids?
SaH: The argument is not that Colorado is easily beaten via dead ball play. It's more that under Brian Schmetzer the Sounders just Sounder. They do what they do well, attempting to force other teams to react to their play rather than reacting to the opponent. Sure, the Sounders could try to convert to a team that uses heavy wing play, but that isn't who they are. Who they are is - Morris, possession and set-pieces. Their set-piece success comes from service via Andreas Ivanschitz and Nicolas Lodeiro. Their targets are quite varied - Chad Marshall, Roman Torres, Brad Evans and Nelson Haedo Valdez.
Looking at games against "good" set-piece defensive teams (LA, Colorado, Dallas, RBNY) the Sounders only scored three set-piece goals (two if you ignore a Van Damme own goal on a corner). The other two came against Dallas. One was a header on an indirect kick from Ivanschitz to Roldan and the other was a direct kick by Lodeiro. Seattle can score against this quality of team. It will not be their primary route to attack, but it is not one that they should ignore.
Projected Lineup: Stefan Frei; Joevin Jones, Chad Marshall, Roman Torres, Tyrone Mears; Osvaldo Alonso, Cristian Roldan; Jordan Morris, Nicolas Lodeiro, Brad Evans; Nelson Haedo Valdez