SANTA CLARA, CA - AUGUST 11: Steven Lenhart #24 and Victor Bernardez #26 of the San Jose Earthquakes celebrates after Lenhart scored the winning goal in the 93rd minute against the Seattle Sounders at Buck Shaw Stadium on August 11, 2012 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
The Supporters Shield brings with it home field advantage in the playoffs and a place in the CONCACAF Champions League, and if the Seattle Sounders hope to have a shot they'll have to take all three points against the San Jose Earthquakes tonight at CenturyLink Field.
All six of the Seattle Sounders losses in MLS play this season have been frustrating, but the two to the San Jose Earthquakes stand out. The first meeting between the two sides in Seattle ended in a 1-0 Earthquakes victory, with San Jose's goal coming from a penalty which it would be charitable to label as soft. The second contest between the two came in the US Open Cup, and the Sounders emerged victorious from a scrappy match that turned downright unpleasant towards the end. San Jose would get their revenge in August, when a Steven Lenhart winner at the death dealt the Sounders a difficult blow.
In general, San Jose is just a frustrating team to play. They've shown something of a propensity for grabbing last-second goals, and their somewhat chippy style of play has been largely successful in throwing the opposition off their game. Casting side the Earthquakes tendency to play head games to their advantage, they're also a flat-out excellent team as their league-leading 57 points (at a clip of nearly 2 points-per-game) and 60 goals scored clearly illustrate. Chris Wondolowski is rightly the focal point of San Jose's attack, but no team succeeds thanks to the efforts of one player alone and it's been the improved contributions of Wondo's supporting cast that have made all of the difference this season. Alan Gordon, Steven Lenhart and Simon Dawkins have all shown themselves to be very dangerous threats at goal, while San Jose's midfield has excelled as a whole at keeping the supply lines well stocked.
The improvement of the side has truly been across the board, with players that formerly looked to be little more than occasional contributors stepping it on their way to career seasons. A defense that put together a solid 2011 has continued to be an effective unit in 2012 but the improved potency of the attack has been the real difference, with the Earthquakes already 20 goals ahead of last season's total output. They've been shut out just twice all season, with the last coming on July 7th. With so much firepower going forward, there's little hope of shutting the Earthquakes down completely; the best hope any team has is to break down a good but less than elite back line and try to keep the mistakes at the back to a minimum.
In terms of injuries, San Jose will be missing Marvin Chavez, who has taken a huge step forward this season in becoming one of his team's most potent creators. Aside from that, the 'Qaukes enter the game in good health, with the remainder of their regulars available for selection (including Ike Opara, who somehow escaped the attention of the MLS Disciplinary Committee after body-checking David Horst.) The Sounders aren't quite so fortunate; though Christian Tiffert is expected to play, Mauro Rosales is still a game-time decision and Eddie Johnson will be forced to sit out the game due to yellow card accumulation. With Sammy Ochoa going 90 minutes mid-week in Honduras, that leaves some questions surrounding Seattle's lineup choices. Could we see a return of the 4-3-3 that Seattle used against FC Dallas a month ago, or will Mauro Rosales slide up top? David Estrada is listed as probable on the injury report; is he fit enough to return to the starting lineup? Will Fredy Montero go it alone? It will be interesting to see.
Even with the Supporters Shield considerations taken out of the equation, this is a massive game for the Sounders. The LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake are both just two points behind, and a slide out of the top three in the Western Conference would be a pretty serious blow. Additionally, it's always good to put together a strong performance against the apparent team to beat with the playoffs just a month away. Heading into October, every bit of confidence helps. The Sounders are talented enough to beat any team in MLS, and San Jose is no exception. But are they disciplined enough to shake off the head games? Are they strong enough at the back to stem the tide? These are things worth knowing as we enter the homestretch, and hopefully for the Sounders sake the answer to both of those questions is yes.