SEATTLE - OCTOBER 15: Alvaro Fernandez #15 of the Seattle Sounders FC battles Rafael Baca #30 of the San Jose Earthquakes at CenturyLink Field on October 15th, 2011 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
A tough looking Earthquakes team pays a visit to CenturyLink Field, but despite the danger posed by one of the most dangerous poachers in MLS the Sounders head into the game strong favorites yet again.
The San Jose Eathquakes will come to town on Saturday night in the season's first Heritage Cup competition, but in the eyes of Sounders fans by far the more important thing will be the standing in the MLS Western Conference at the end of the weekend. For all the attempts to fashion a rivalry out of very little, the Heritage Cup has never much taken off, and to the likely chagrin of its backers things haven't much improved since the Portland Timbers and Vancoouver Whitecaps have joined the league. That's not to say this game is devoid of meaning outside of the current table; the Sounders and Earthquakes have developed a rivalry that's far from devoid of acrimony, and based on the way things have shaped up to this point this is a game that could hold some meaning going forward.
As things stand, the Sounders and Earthquakes are equal on points with Seattle holding a game in hand. Outside of the numerical advantage and home-field edge, the Sounders also come into the game as one of the favorites to take the Western Conference crown while San Jose were picked by many to bring up the rear, something of an outside shot at challenging for a playoff berth. But even those most pessimistic about the 'Quakes chances will admit that they were one of the West's wildcards, not especially imposing on the face of things but a team that wouldn't surprise a great many by making a push for the playoffs. Though it's only been three games San Jose is looking quite good in that respect with a 2-1- record through three games, including a 3-0 stomping of Toronto FC at BMO Field. Their only loss came at the hands of a strong Houston Dynamo side, the 'Quakes falling 1-0 on a questionable penalty at AT&T Park, nominally a home game but with the advantage doubtlessly lessened thanks to an unconventional and unfamiliar surface.
So, it's difficult to know what to make of this San Jose side; the win over the Revolution doesn't look especially impressive and a loss at home to an Eastern Conference team certainly won't turn any heads, but Toronto FC is something of a media darling and has done a fair bit to back up that reputation, yet the Earthquakes turned them aside on their home pitch without even a hint of difficulty. Clearly the Sounders biggest challenge will be shutting out Chris Wondoloski , but that's far easier said than done; poachers of Wondo's quality are rare in MLS, and he is by far the most difficult kind of player for a defense to prepare. A back line can do just about everything right, but there will always be rebounds and missed assignments. These are the kinds of things Wondolowski lives for. Short of man-marking him into oblivion, there's really no way to full prepare for a player of his style.
Luckily, the Sounders can likely afford to go that route without too much fear. Of the four goals San Jose has scored this season, Wondolowski has three. It's not that San Jose doesn't have any other quality attacking players, but when you've got a striker of Wondo's quality it's tempting to gear your entire tactical approach towards getting him the ball. That's pretty clearly the direction in which the Earthquakes have gone.
The Sounders are scoring goals at a quite respectable clip through their first two games, and there's not much reason to expect that to slow down a great deal. David Estrada won't sore every single game, but at some point Fredy Montero, Alvaro Fernandez or one of the many day-to-day status Sounders will begin to score. The real question this week is going to be in regards to the defense; will Jeff Parke continue to ride the bench (to some consternation) or will Sigi Schmid ride the hot hand in choosing a Patrick Ianni-Jhon Kennedy-Hurtado pairing in the middle once again? Does Marc Burch get the nod on the left, or will Leo Gonzalez force his way back into the XI? With a couple of positional battles emerging, Schmid will have to balance the strength of his defense to this point with past performance and squad harmony.
There are also a few question marks in terms of the attack; Eddie Johnson has been training at roughly full-strength with the squad this week, while Brad Evans and Mauro Rosales have both been in limited action and are still questionable for the game. No matter what ends up being the case in terms of the lineups, the Sounders look to be by far the stronger team and with home-field advantage should be expecting another three points on Saturday. With a very tough run of games coming up, those could be a very valuable three points indeed.