Under the dark of night the Seattle Sounders look to continue their record-setting win streak and match the franchise-best unbeaten run. Half a year and practically a lifetime ago, when there was a chance that Seattle made a CONCACAF Champions League run, this match was supposed to be on a weekend day. It is now a late-season weeknight contest between two sides with playoff aspirations.
The Philadelphia Union are in midst of their best season since 2011, with a strong shot at being in the Eastern Conference playoffs with the privilege of fighting for the chance to face either Atlanta or Red Bulls.
Matthew Ralph from the Brotherly Game answers Three Questions.
SaH: Philly made a change at the Technical Director/GM level. How long will it take before the impact of losing Earnie Stewart is felt?
tBG: Well, their names are very similar and Earnie Ernst seems to be committed to a similar vision of building the team from the academy up, so it’s hard to say how much the change will be felt in general, but at the very least it will probably be pretty minimal for the rest of this season. He’s not officially in the position yet, but has been spotted around training and at the academy training facility, so he’s learning the ins and outs of the club and will have a chance to make his mark in the offseason, where there will be plenty of question marks (starting with Borek Dockal, who is on a one-year loan without an option to buy).
SaH: Union are in this odd place. The record is decent, but there’s it seems like fans have an impending sense of dread. Are they a playoff team?
tBG: An odd place, indeed. The fanbase has been kind of all over the place lately. The negativity has been tamped down and the optimistic fans have pushed back on anything negative said, but an impending sense of dread is where most Union fans live. I think they are a playoff team — I’ve said that since week one — but the jury is still out on whether they are poised for more than just a playoff cameo.
SaH: Which player exemplifies the identity of the 2018 Union?
tBG: Dockal. He was prematurely called a bust as he was settling into the team — and recovering from an ankle injury — but he’s been the catalyst to the team’s progression and growth, leading the offense with 15 assists and making the players around him better. He’s only with the team on a year-long loan without an option to buy, but the club is going to need to figure out some way to keep him in blue and gold next season because he’s been every bit the star he was tabbed to be when he arrived.
Projected Lineup: Blake, Fabinho, Trusty, Elliott, Rosenberry, Medunjanin, Jones, Picault, Bedoya, Herbers, Burke
(Note: I’m projecting a bit of squad rotation because it’s such a long trip on a Wednesday on turf with a game Sunday and the Open Cup final seven days later)
tBG: This is becoming a bit of an annual story line isn’t it? The Sounders heating up at just the right time. How do you explain it?
SaH: The simplest reason is that head coach Brian Schmetzer understands his people. While each season has its own causes to failure, and each of these three seasons saw Seattle add significant talent, the constant is a man who will never let his players quit. He is a true believer in the players and in the fanbase. No matter the circumstances he will point the finger of success at the players. And they believe him. They will never, ever quit. A Sounder that doesn’t quit knows they can succeed when their backs are against the wall.
tBG: This game was originally supposed to be played back in April but was moved because of Champions League. Do you feel like the Sounders caught a break and that the Union got the short end of the straw? Are you expecting an easy contest given the long travel for the Union, the mid-week game and the Open Cup final seven days away for the Union?
SaH: I’m certain that Philly would have preferred to face the Sounders back when the Sounders were awful. That doesn’t mean this match will be easy. Many coaches would switch the Best XI onto the midweek schedule needed for the Open Cup Final. Union also have plenty of motivation — they can end a historic run; they need points for the East playoff hunt. At this point my expectations are that the Sounders find a way to win, but that nothing is easy.
tBG: Who have the key players been for the Sounders in their current winning streak? What under-the-radar players have helped key the run?
SaH: Left back Brad Smith and forward Raúl Ruidíaz were the two additions in the secondary window. It would be easy to say they are key players. Stefan Frei is a league leader in goals against average. Chad Marshall is in the running to win the award that should be named after him. Cristian Roldan has a motor that doesn’t stop. Nicolas Lodeiro is charging up the assists leaderboard. Osvaldo Alonso is playing like Ozzie Alonso again.
I guess that’s a long way of saying that a run like this isn’t powered by a single player. The list of heroes is long. The lineup through the run is rather consistent, and that’s helped a lot. But the key players? It’s all of them. They are better than the sum of their parts, for now.
Projected Lineup: Stefan Frei; Brad Smith, Chad Marshall, Kim Kee-hee, Jordan McCrary; Gustav Svensson, Cristian Roldan; Victor Rodriguez, Nicolas Lodeiro, Harry Shipp; Raul Ruidiaz
There won’t be heavy rotation since the midweek game is at home.