Mar 31, 2012; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Sounders FC forward Fredy Montero (17) lunges to block a pass by San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Marvin Chavez (81) during the 1st half at CentryLink field. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-US PRESSWIRE
The Seattle Sounders are in the midst of one of the worst stretches in their history as an MLS team, but advancing to the semifinals of the US Open Cup with a win over the league-leading Earthquakes could go a long way towards easing the pain.
There's pretty clearly something wrong with the Seattle Sounders right now. Winless in MLS play since May 9th, things reached their low-point (so far) with Sunday's 2-1 loss to the arch-rival Portland Timbers. A defense that carried the team through the early season has been a complete mess for the better part of a month, and what was expected to be one of the league's most potent attacks has hardly been in evidence all year. What was once the most promising start in team history is now a season that's threatening to come unglued.
That's quite the contrast to the way things are going for San Jose. After finishing 7th in the Western Conference in 2011 and a fairly quiet off-season, the Earthquakes have been the shock of the league this season, with their 33 points through 16 games the highest total in the league with a game-in-hand over second-best Real Salt Lake. Chris Wondolowski has unsurprisingly been the driving force for San Jose, with his league-leading 13 goals accounting for over 40% of the 'Quakes co-league-leading 31 goals. Though their high-potency attack is what separates San Jose from the rest of the league, a much-improved defense deserves plenty of credit as well, and that balance has propelled them to a league-best +12 goal difference.
Facing such a strong team is a daunting task in and of itself, but for the Sounders to come into this match in such poor form with just a day's rest makes things significantly trickier. It's likely that Sigi Schmid will be relying on several players that logged significant minutes in Sunday's game to do the same against the Earthquakes, while it's equally likely that several key players will be completely unavailable. With Fredy Montero out for the weekend's league game against New England he's a decent bet to play, as is the seemingly indefatigable Osvaldo Alonso. Brad Evans being withdrawn at the half against Portland makes him a solid bet as well, while Zach Scott and Marc Burch are seemingly the only real options to play the outside back positions. Outside of that, the lineup is anyone's guess. Alvaro Fernandez would seem to be a sure thing, but Sigi Schmid's obvious and very public frustration over his sending off against Sporting Kansas City (which led to his missing the Portland game) could change that. Jeff Parke's status is unknown.
This is going to be a very tough game for Schmid to get right. A somewhat piecemeal team could lead to some major tactical adjustments, and there's also the increased injury risk that comes along with playing on short rest to consider as well. It's not an enviable position for any coach, but given the pride Seattle takes in their Open Cup success and the promise of CONCACAF Champions League play that comes along with it, the stakes are tremendously high.
An unfortunately timed run of poor form, the unkindness of the draw, and perhaps most importantly a catastrophically bad rash of injuries have conspired to make this one of the biggest tests for the Sounders in US Open Cup play since their run began in 2009. It's too late to change any of those things, but not too late to get the season back on the right track. The Sounders have the talent, even with their current roster-squeeze, to beat any team in the league in any competition. But they need to rediscover the spark that made them one of the league's best teams last season, or else things could go from bad to disastrous with astonishing speed.