When the Colorado Rapids take to the pitch at CenturyLink Field on Saturday, it will have been 358 days since the tackle that forever changed the lives of Steve Zakuani and Brian Mullan. The Sounders would go on to win that game and eventually put together a run of dominance the likes of which had seldom been seen in MLS history, but they would never really escape from the shadow of what could have been had that one regrettable moment not occurred. A great many things have changed since then; in the wake of the loss of Zakuani, the Sounders discovered the extent to which they'd lucked out in stumbling upon Mauro Rosales. The Rapids have undergone a complete overhaul that has resulted in their being one of the more attractive teams in MLS so far this season, beginning to move beyond a history of occasionally effective but perpetually unattractive soccer.
To this point, it's been a bit of a mixed bag results-wise for Óscar Pareja's side. While there's little doubt that the Rapids have been exponentially more enjoyable to watch this season, the transition to fluid, attacking soccer has not been without growing pains; at home Colorado have managed a pair of 2-0 wins over Columbus and Chicago, but on the road they've had a tougher time of things. A 2-1 win over an horrendous Philadelphia team is the outlier amongst a pair of lopsided losses to New York and Real Salt Lake. But at this point, it's far too early to pick up on specific trends; on the balance, the Rapids have been a good team against mediocre-to-poor competition and a poor team against strong competition. That's really all we have to go off of.
Omar Cummings, one of Colorado's most potent weapons in years past, has had some trouble adjusting to his role as the lone central striker in the Rapids new configuration, as the position has a very different set of responsibilities than those to which he is accustomed. Cummings is gifted enough as an athlete and talented enough as a player to think that there's little reason to doubt his ability to eventually flourish, but as of yet it's been a struggle; though Cummings has netted two goals on the season, he's clearly looked uncomfortable a great deal and disappeared for long stretches of time (which is somewhat difficult when you're the lone striker in a 4-5-1 formation.) Without Cummings in the mix the Rapids are a significantly less dangerous side, reliant on goals from a midfield that is instead configured to get the ball to the striker.
It's always a bit difficult to know what to expect from a team playing such a drastically different style at such an early point in the season; gone is the long-ball heavy, physical, aerial-assault of years past. In its place is a much more fluid and technical style played out of a formation that has been described as a 4-3-3, a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-5-1; in truth, none of those descriptions is really inaccurate. The Rapids employ a very densely packed midfield that can be reconfigured on the fly to suit the situation, one of the few constants being young Argentine Martín Rivero acting as the central playmaker. Rivero seems to be a strong candidate for being man-marked by Osvaldo Alonso, as without his contributions the creativity level of the Rapids goes down significantly. Though they're playing a far different style (and at times doing so quite well) this is still largely Gary Smith's Rapids team, and words such as "creativity," "vision," "technique" and " flair" were removed from the Smith family dictionary generations ago.
The Rapids are clearly moving in a positive direction, but the transition is not yet complete; Pareja will need a bit more time for that yet. The key for Seattle will be to take advantage of those growing pains; if the Sounders can choke off the supply to Cummings, dominate the midfield battle and break down what has at times looked like a shaky Rapids defense, they'll likely coast to victory. That would be true of almost any game, but in this instance there is legitimate reason to believe that all of those goals are achievable. The biggest concerns for Seattle will be Fredy Montero's ability to deal with the Rapids' double-pivot midfield and how the right side of the attack copes with being forced to play without Mauro Rosales and Adam Johansson once again. If Montero can be neutralized, Alvaro Fernandez will be the Sounders primary attacking option; that's in no way a concern if he's at his typical level, but one need only look at the DC United game to see how anemic Seattle's attack can be if both Montero and Fernandez are non-factors.
Ultimately, just as Mullan's appearance in Seattle has overshadowed a lot of potentially interesting pre-match storylines, it will likely overshadow much of what takes place during the game. Mullan will not get a lukewarm reception from the crowd at CenturyLink, that much is certain. Every tackle will be scrutinized, every touch met with boos, every success jeered. It's understandable, but one can hope that once the whistle blows the focus will shift to what could be a very important early-season result for both sides.