The Seattle Sounders have taken care of much of the year's business; the playoffs are clinched, The US Open Cup is sticking around for at least one more year, another trip to the CONCACAF Champions League has been booked and this year's CCL experience is far from done. The Sounders have also all but locked up the second spot in the Western Conference and the overall MLS standings, making a direct path to next year's CCL group stage a distinct possibility. All of this with three games to spare. Not too shabby.
Despite all this, there's still something other than pride left for Seattle to play for; the odds are long (most likely somewhere in the neighborhood of 5%) but the Sounders are still in the race for the Supporters Shield. Until those odds officially stand at 0%, Sounders fans will be forgiven for holding out hope. It's hard to blame them. This season (and especially the last three months of it) has defied reason on many different fronts. The Sounders need a lot of help from the Galaxy, but there's a prevalent and well-founded belief that Seattle is going to take care of its part of things, and despite LA having one of the best seasons in MLS history this league is unpredictable enough that the door likely seems far wider open than the numbers would tell you.
If the Sounders are going to keep hope going for at least one more week, they'll have to overcome yet another set of challenges this afternoon against the Philadelphia Union. Seattle's three best attacking players are likely to be absent; Fredy Montero will be serving a one game suspension for yellow card accumulation, Mauro Rosales looks a long shot to start and questionable to make the 18 and Alvaro Fernandez has yet to be cleared to play after suffering a concussion against the Chicago Fire in Tuesday night's US Open Cup final. The Sounders are in good shape everywhere else, but those three players comprise the entirety of the team's creative force. There's still enough talent in the side to score goals, but those goals are going to have to come from a different style of play than we're used to seeing from Sigi Schmid's team.
What the Sounders lose in flair and creativity, they make up for in speed and athleticism. Lamar Neagle and Mike Fucito are both very dangerous in space and should make the counter attack more of a focus of Seattle's attack than usual. With the players that drive the Sounders' possession-heavy attack unavailable it woudn't be too much of a surprise to see Servando Carrasco and Osvaldo Alonso play as twin holding midfielders in a more defensive posture that we're used to seeing from Seattle, nor would one of Zach Scott or Leo Gonzalez starting as an outside back. Seattle simply can't expect to control the pace and possession of the game, and with their biggest strength shifting from the attack to the defense it's reasonable to expect the emphasis to shift along with it.
Were the Sounders facing one of their other remaining opponents -the San Jose Earthquakes and Chivas USA- this might be less of a concern. But the Philadelphia Union have actually recovered quite nicely from a long run of very poor form to pull themselves back into second place in the Eastern Conference. The Union are unbeaten in their last six, and though four of those games ended in draws without a win the Sounders hopes of claiming the Shield are over. Philadelphia isn't exactly a prolific scoring team, but the combination of Sebastien Le Toux, Danny Mwanga and Freddy Adu are certainly capable of wreaking havoc on opposing defenses. The Union's bread and butter, however, is their defense; their 34 goals allowed puts them third in the league (just behind the Sounders) and with Seattle's attack compromised breaking them down is going to be an ever tougher task than usual.
There's reason to expect that Seattle is going to have to go after three points in a much different manner than usual, but it's important to keep in mind how good this team has been from top to bottom. The Sounders defense has been second only to the Galaxy, and while Montero, Rosales and Fernandez account for 31 goals on the season the Sounders have scored 70; big losses, certainly, but this team is still capable of scoring. They're also still capable of winning. This is going to be Seattle's toughest test in quite some time, but if the defense can stay tight and keep the Union's attack under wraps there's every reason to believe Seattle can snag a goal or two and emerge with the points. Even with today's absences, Seattle is an above-average MLS team playing at home against a team that's been fairly poor on the road. By the time the Galay take the field again, the Sounders could be just one point behind them in the table. And really, why would anyone expect this team not to make the end of the season as interesting as possible?