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Throwing Darts: SaH staff predict starting XI at Houston

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In the midst of a busy week, head coach Brian Schmetzer has some difficult personnel decisions ahead of him. Who will start against Houston Dynamo and who will rest up for the ever-important Cascadia clash this weekend?

HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 18: Erik Friberg #28 of the Seattle Sounders FC and Ricardo Clark #13 of the Houston Dynamo battle for the ball in the first half of their game at BBVA Compass Stadium on October 18, 2015 in Houston, Texas.
Sounders midfielder Erik Friberg (above) assists Dynamo midfielder Ricardo Clark (below) in sampling soil toxicity levels at BBVA Compass Stadium.
Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Against the Portland Timbers last Sunday, coach Brian Schmetzer did something amazing—something fans had not seen since 2010: he started the same lineup in three consecutive MLS matches.

Frei; Mears, Marshall, Evans, J. Jones; Alonso, Roldan; Lodeiro, Dempsey, Ivanschitz; Morris

Tomorrow night, that streak may very well come to an end. Because, in order to safely navigate his squad through 3 matches in the span of 8 days, Schmetzer may be compelled to enlist in the help of his bench to take the pitch against the Dynamo.

A choice to be made

As if 3 matches in 8 days wasn’t enough of a challenge, Schmetzer will soon have to make a rather difficult strategic decision: employ a “one game at a time” approach, fielding the strongest possible lineup against Houston, or play the “long game” strategy by resting key starters for the scheduled invasion of Providence Park mere days later. A conservative lineup could help prevent overuse injuries that have handicapped this club in recent seasons. Too conservative an approach, however, could result in lost momentum heading into the weekend.

The western conference standings currently show Seattle (30 points) chasing Portland (32 points) for the final playoff berth with 10 games left, compared to Timbers’ 8 games. If the Sounders win tomorrow, they would enter Portland with a one-point lead; a tie would pull Seattle within one point of their rivals to the south.

Some soccer analysts would argue that Seattle’s game this weekend should be prioritized because it is a “6-pointer.” 6-pointers are matches where the difference between winning and losing represents a six-point differential. With so much at stake this weekend, and limited resources at coach Schmetzer’s disposal, there is a case to be made for resting key starters in the short term.

To get a feel for the range of outcomes, please refer to the best and worst case scenarios detailed below.

Best case scenario: Win both. Sounders overtake San Jose and Portland in standings. 6th place, 36 points. Timbers stagnate at 32 points, falling below the red line.

Worst case scenario: Lose both. Sounders fall below Vancouver, lose ground to Houston in standings. 9th place, 30 points. Timbers pull away at 35 points, rising further above the red line.

Throwing darts

When asked to forecast a starting lineup for tomorrow’s game against the Houston Dynamo, Sounder at Heart staff members’ lineup predictions varied across the board. No two lineups were identical, but the majority included a common core of players. Frei, Roldan, Friberg, and Fernandez were on everyone’s lineup. Valdez, Evans, Remick, and Lodeiro were near-consensus picks. We think the lineup will include 6-7 players from the past three lineups.

Frei; Mears, Evans, Marshall, Remick; Roldan, Friberg; Fernandez, Lodeiro, Valdez; Morris

OR

Frei; Mears, Evans, Marshall, Remick; Roldan, Friberg; Fernandez, Lodeiro, Gomez; Valdez

Unsurprisingly, centerback, right wing, and center forward were the positions with the most variance. 40% of the staff predicted Marshall would travel to Houston and start beside Evans. The remainder of the staff were split between Torres and Scott. While Valdez found his way into nearly everyone’s lineup (all but one), the position he would occupy divided the staff. A slight majority placed him at center forward, the rest penciled him in at right wing. Right wing was the most difficult position for the staff to predict. Four players divided the staff: Lodeiro (18%), Roldan (18%), Gomez (27%), and Valdez (37%).

From the lineup that has been so successful lately: Alonso, Ivanschitz, Dempsey and Jones were the most common omissions. Friberg, Fernandez, Valdez, and Remick represent “depth players” (for lack of a better term) that appeared on the majority of staff lineups. These choices were the result of a consideration of several factors such as player age, injury history, fitness level, and quality of positional depth.

Most SaH staff did not include Roman Torres in their lineup likely due to concerns about his form and fitness coming off a long-term injury. However, if Schmetzer believes he is ready, making his season debut on a forgiving grass surface in a climate similar to Panama (his home country) makes sense. Torres’ inclusion would give one of Evans (31) or Marshall (32) a welcomed rest. Under Schmetzer, Tyrone Mears has been more involved in the attack, resulting in more leg work per 90 minutes. At 33 years old, Mears could certainly use a few extra days or rehabilitation. Unfortunately, behind him on the depth chart is Oniel Fisher, who has had a rocky season playing predominantly with USL side Sounders 2 (131 minutes with first team which included an early ejection). If “bad Fisher” were to show up and earn another early red card, the implications for Sunday —or worse, the season—could be dire. Most think Schmetzer will ask Mears to start, potentially setting up Torres up for a mid-to-late game substitution which would see Evans slide over to right back.

The omission of such quality players as Alonso and Dempsey is a tribute to the team’s quality depth and competition for playing time. In his post-game interview, Clint Dempsey paid a genuine compliment to his peers.

“this is the most competition within our team in terms of depth; it pushes us in training and forces us to be better on the weekends.”

In light of the team’s recent change in leadership, tomorrow evening represents a massive opportunity for certain players to impress their new head coach and make their case for a regular spot in the starting lineup. There is a lot to play for. Despite the quick turnaround for several players, we should not expect a lull in energy or motivation from Schmetzer’s side. As he has said multiple times, this is a committed group that works hard for each other.

Houston, we had a problem

The midweek clash between Seattle Sounders FC and Houston Dynamo will involve two western conference teams attempting to right the ship after slow starts. Somewhere along the lines, both clubs parted ways with their former head coaches and are now led by former assistant coaches. Though they find themselves in last place in the west, Houston has shown some fight under interim head coach Wade Barrett. In last Friday’s match against the Earthquakes, Houston earned their first road win of the season (oh hey, Portland. Didn’t see you there).

At home, Houston is 4-1-6. The sweltering heat and smothering humidity of South Texas give the Dynamo a definite home field edge, making it tough for opposing teams to get comfortable. This season, Houston has only allowed 7 goals in 11 regular season matches—3 of which came in the home opener under former-manager Owen Coyle. Adjusted, that’s 4 goals in 10 matches. Let that sink in for a moment. The forecast for Houston tomorrow evening is hot and humid with a chance of thunderstorms. Expect a low-scoring grudge match for 90 minutes.

At this point in the season, Seattle and Houston should be likened to two malnourished grizzles competing for resources in anticipation of a long, cold winter ahead. Seattle has been grumpy in past weeks, refusing to share with others. TAKE ‘EM ALL!