SANTA CLARA, CA - MAY 13: Steven Lenhart #24 of the San Jose Earthquakes loses his footing chasing after the ball with James Riley #7 of the Chivas USA in the first half of their game at Buck Shaw Stadium on May 13, 2012 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
After a crushing disappointment in Wednesday night's US Open Cup final against Sporting Kansas City, the Seattle Sounders have seen the door they've taken into the CONCACAF Champions League for three consecutive seasons slammed shut. A win against the San Jose Earthquakes could see a window open just a crack.
It's been quite a week for the Seattle Sounders. On Sunday there was euphoria as the Sounders dismantled the LA Galaxy 4-0; on Wednesday there was heartbreak, with three missed penalties and several controversial calls ending Seattle's chances at a historic 4th consecutive US Open Cup title. Now, after just two days of rest following a grueling 120 minutes in Kansas City, the Sounders head to Buck Shaw Stadium in San Jose to take on the current Supporters Shield race leading Earthquakes. And though the Earthquakes have cooled a bit as of late, a mentally and physically tested Sounders squad will clearly be facing an enormously difficult test in a game that could prove to be a major turning point for the season.
At a point that wasn't all that long ago, the Supporters Shield seemed like the last thing with which the Sounders ought to be concerned. Mired in a slump unlike anything the team had experienced since joining MLS, the primary concerns were to stop the slide before it threatened to destroy a season that had begun on such a promising note. Even after righting the ship, Seattle was still in danger of losing their grip on the all-important third playoff spot, which guarantees a bye in the MLS Cup playoffs. But as the Sounders continued to pick up positive results, their Western Conference foes began to stumble; while Seattle hasn't lost in league play since June 24th and are currently riding a six game unbeaten streak, the Earthquakes have gone streaky. They've still earned some impressive results, not least of which was a 5-0 drubbing of Real Salt Lake on July 14th, they've looked something less than unbeatable since. The Quakes managed a win against a woeful FC Dallas side thanks to a missed penalty in the 94th minute, while their 1-1 draw against the Chicago Fire was made possibly only because of several eons of stoppage time added because of an Alan Gordon red card and the ensuing fracas.
While it's true that San Jose has been finding ways to win (or at the very least not lose) all season long, the path they've taken in recent games doesn't seem especially sustainable. The Earthquakes are clearly the surprise of the season, a club not expected to do much more than challenge for a playoff spot that has instead become an offensive dynamo, powered by a league-leading 45 goals. Chris Wondolowski is clearly the star, and his 17 goals through 23 games played is a breathtaking number. But he's not alone in posing a serious threat at goal; Gordon's 9 goals would rank second on the Sounders, as would the ever-lovable Steven Lenhart's 7. Veteran midfielder Marvin Chavez is enjoying quite the renaissance since moving to the Quakes from FC Dallas in the offseason, acting as the team's key playmaker and providing a creative presence that's been lacking in the past. Speedy winger Shea Salinas is enjoying a breakout season, having forced his way into Frank Yallop's starting lineup. And while the defense isn't necessarily world-beating, it's been solidly above-average and plenty good enough to make San Jose's offensive output suffice.
Put it all together and San Jose looks a solid favorite to take home the Supporters Shield and head to the playoffs as the league's top seed. But they haven't wrapped up anything just yet. Three Eastern Conference teams (New York Red Bulls, the Houston Dynamo, and Sporting Kansas City) are all within striking range, and their closest competition is likely still Real Salt Lake. But if the Sounders can manage a victory on Saturday night, they'll at least become part of the conversation. Three points would bring Seattle's total to 40, just 4 behind the Earthquakes with a game in hand and one more head-to-head matchup at CenturyLink left to play. Conversely, a loss would all but erase any hope the Sounders still have of clinching a return trip to the CCL and giving themselves as easy a route as possible to an MLS Cup title. In a week that's already seen two massive games go by, this last one could ultimately end up being the most meaningful.
For a Sounders side that has already logged significant minutes this week, finding the right combination of quality and fitness will be key. Eddie Johnson, Mauro Rosales, Osvaldo Alonso, Leo Gonzalez, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Patrick Ianni, and Zach Scott and played (functionally) the entire game. Fredy Montero was withdrawn prior to the start of the second half of overtime, but looked absolutely gassed well before leaving the game. That leaves Christian Tiffert, Brad Evans, Marc Burch, Adam Johannson, Alex Caskey, Andy Rose, and Jeff Parke as the only Sounders regulars that wouldn't be expected to be at less than full capacity heading into Saturday night. Seattle's match fitness hasn't been too serious of a concern this season and the fatigue is manageable, but it's completely reasonable to expect that it will have some impact on the game if in no other sense than Sigi Schmid's team selection.
But even if the Sounders had their full compliment of fully-rested players, the keys to victory would be exactly the same; Stop Wondolowski without allowing Gordon and Lenhart to hurt you just as badly. Anyone that knows the Earthquakes knows how difficult a task that can be. The Earthquakes have put up some shocking numbers against teams that are every bit as good as (and in some cases better than) the Sounders. But Seattle's attack has been strong enough as of late that it's fair to believe that the goals will come from somewhere; the objective, first and foremost, must be keeping the Earthuakes attack in check. And if that means playing a style similar to the one that brought victory over San Jose in the US Open Cup at Kezar Stadium, so be it.