Right on the heels of one of the most difficult weeks in franchise history, the Seattle Sounders will play host to a Vancouver Whitecaps team that's proven difficult to predict. At times this season, Martin Rennie's side has looked to be on the verge of breaking through and joining the league's elite. At others, they've done things like lose 2-0 at home to FC Dallas. There's little doubt that the club is headed in a positive direction; after finishing dead-last in the Western Conference (as well as the imaginary single table) in 2011, the Whitecaps started the season strong and have only improved from there. While the offseason narrative surrounding last season's expansion teams tended to focus on Portland taking a big step forward and Vancouver committing to something of a tear-down and rebuild after just one year, it's turned out to be almost the polar opposite.
The inclusion of the word "almost" is key; the team was incredibly active on the trade market during pre-season, and despite an impressive record and what would appear to be a pretty firm grip on a playoff spot, the clear-out didn't end once the games began. After trading (or otherwise losing) Jeb Brovsky, Shea Salinas, Jay Nolly and Lee Nguyen before the beginning of the year, the Whitecaps have since parted ways with three of their biggest names in Davide Chiumento, Sebastien Le Toux and Eric Hassli. Rennie is proving that it's possible to revamp a team while simultaneously performing not only well but significantly better than anyone would have reasonably expected.
Vancouver has managed to play above expectations thanks to balance throughout the squad rather than leaning heavily on a few big names. 22-year-old striker Darren Mattocks has been the team's breakout star, the second overall pick in the 2012 MLS Super Draft cracking the starting lineup for the first time in the Whitecaps 2-2 draw with the Sounders on May 19th, and he's been a regular fixture ever since. His mark of 7 goals in 14 games is a team best, and his performance this season led to his first appearance with the Jamaican national team on August 15th. With the addition of fellow Jamaican international Dane Richards, acquired from New York as part of the deal that sent Le Toux to the Red Bulls, the Whitecaps have speed to burn up top; creative winger (and legitimate threat at goal in his own right) Camilo Sanvezzo on the left gives balance to Vancouver's attacking three and makes it quite an imposing force.
But if there's one thing that really sets the Whitecaps apart from the rest of MLS, it's the strength of their fullback play. In a league whose most glaring weakness is in the lack of quality at the outside back position, Alain Rochat and Lee Young-Pyo have given other clubs something to consider when it comes time to go about making upgrades. Rochat and Lee give the Whitecaps another level of depth in their attack, one that's been consistently difficult for opposing teams to counter, and given the defensive shortcomings of Mauro Rosales and Alex Caskey it's an area of Saturday's game worth keeping in mind.
Luckily for Seattle, the center of Vancouver's defense is not in nearly as good a shape as the flanks; captain Jay Demerit is listed as doubtful on the injury report due to a concussion, while Martín Bonjour will miss the game due to yellow card accumulation. That means the likely starters will be Jordan Harvey and newcomer Andy O'Brien, and though that's not by any means a bad pairing it's a significant downgrade from the Whitecaps preferred tandem. As an additional benefit for Seattle, the diminished quality in the middle could force Rochat and Lee to be less adventurous going forward. That could have a fairly significant ripple effect on the quality of Vancouver's attack.
With the regular season entering the homestretch, the Sounders don't have the luxury of dwelling on last week's disappointments. Seattle may be even on points with the Whitecaps, but they have two games in hand and an advantage in both tiebreakers. But a loss in this game would take away a lot of that edge, and with the Sounders also losing one of their games in hand over the LA Galaxy this weekend it would make an already murky playoff picture begin to look as clear as mud. After working hard to dig their way out of a slump that nearly derailed their season, Seattle can't afford to let a few difficult losses erase all of that progress. Rivalry games are always difficult and this one in particular will be a challenge, but if the Sounders want this season to be a step forward they'd do well to find a way to pick up three points.