TORONTO, CANADA - JUNE 23: The New England Revolution celebrates a Chris Tierney goal at BMO Field June 23, 2012 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
While Tuesday's gritty cup win against the league-leading San Jose Earthquakes has led to a more positive mood, the Sounders are still winless in seven consecutive MLS games. With the LA Galaxy heating up and the teams at the top of the Western Conference showing little sign of slowing down, can Seattle turn things around against an improving New England Revolution?
On May 9th, the Seattle Sounders beat FC Dallas 2-0, the club's fifth straight win. It gave Seattle 22 points, just one fewer point than then Western Conference leaders Real Salt Lake, and the Sounders held three games in hand. A slow start by Seattle's attack had been more than made up for by their stellar defensive play, and with Mauro Rosales and Alvaro Fernandez working their way back into the side after early-season injuries there seemed to be little doubt that the team was on the verge of an offensive explosion.
Unfortunately for Sounders fans, things didn't turn out quite that way; there was an offensive explosion all right, but it came from the opposition. Over the course of the current seven game winless streak, Seattle has allowed 13 goals and nearly as worrisome they've managed just six of their own. There was some hope that back-to-back five goal explosions against lower-division sides in US Open Cup play might translate to league play, but in the next three MLS games the Sounders managed just one goal apiece while the defensive woes continued. This is a team that bears little resemblance to the impenetrable but offensively-limited team of the early season or the occasionally vulnerable but explosive side of last, both of which were among the league's best teams; instead, it's a nearly unrecognizable mishmash of the worst elements of those two teams, disorganized at the back and sometimes painfully inept in possession and attack.
While there were certainly (and, as it turns out, rightfully) those that were skeptical that the Sounders were as good as their early season results might have indicated, few would have expected that this team was capable of a run of form so poor as they've endured for the past month and a half. But while the Sounders early-season form was unsustainable, there are many reasons to believe that this current run of futility is equally - if not more so - unlikely to last. It's just a matter of when Seattle manages to turn things around and how significant their improvement turns out to be that will determine which iteration of this team is closer to the real thing. And once again, the US Open Cup has given Sounders fans hope that Seattle can in fact be one of the league's best. Though the win over the San Jose Earthquakes wasn't exactly the most beautiful game of soccer this team has ever played, it was nonetheless quite impressive and if confidence is what this team has been lacking then it's difficult to imagine that beating the current Supporters Shield leaders away from home in a game that could most charitably be described as "chippy" wouldn't give them something of a boost.
But realisticallty, for Seattle to be get back to their best there's little question that they'll need to see at least some movement back towards the free-flowing attack and midfield dominance of last season. Despite the undeniable positives the Sounders can take from their win over the Earthquakes, that style was still absent on Tuesday night. While a quick glance at the table may lead one to believe that the New England Revolution offer a golden opportunity for Seattle to find the rhythm they've so sorely been missing as of late, things are not quite so simple; while it's true that the Revs currently reside well outside of a playoff spot, a quick look at the goal difference (spoiler alert: there isn't one) and record of 5-7-3 reveals that they've almost certainly been the victims of some very bad luck.
What's more, New England has been playing some very good soccer as of late. Over the same seven game stretch in which the Sounders have gone winless and earned just three points the Revs have picked up nine, with two impressive wins against the Vancouver Whitecaps and Chicago Fire, three very respectable draws, and losses to Eastern Conference leaders DC United and the second-leading team in all of MLS Real Salt Lake, both away from home. After a bit of a rocky start things finally seem to be coming together under first-year coach Jay Heaps, and the Revs improving form and collection of impressive young talent make them a far more difficult opponent than it might initially appear.
Leading the charge for the Revs has been new signing Saër Sène. The French striker joined New England from Bayern Munich's reserves in the off season and has had an immediate impact, scoring a team high seven goals and causing nightmares for opposing defenses with a deadly combination of size, speed, quickness, and field vision. Sène has given the Revs the kind of attacking threat they've been lacking since Taylor Twellman was forced to retire in 2010. That renewed focal point of attack (and of opposing defenses,) coupled he emergence of other young talent such as Federal Way product Kelyn Rowe, the veteran presence of Benny Feilhaber and the evergreen Shalrie Joseph, and the revival of Lee Nguyen, has allowed Heaps the opportunity to turn the Revs into a team that is scarcely recognizable compared to last year's version. And though this is far from an elite team right now, they have enough talent and are a sufficient unknown quantity to make nearly any level of performance in a single game largely unsurprising.
In a way, the same is true of the Sounders. Though a far more veteran MLS team than the Revs, they've been so unrecognizable as of late that it's difficult to predict what team will show themselves in any given game. On a positive note, there's a good chance Adam Johansson will return from injury meaning that Sigi Schmid could have the opportunity to play his first-choice defense. Alvaro Fernandez will also be available after serving a suspension, and a strong follow-up to the winger's solid performance on Tuesday could go a long way towards easing some of the worry surrounding his lackluster performance so far this season. On a less positive note, Seattle will be forced to perform without Fredy Montero who will serve a one game red card suspension after receiving a questionable red card against the Portland timbers last weekend. That could lead to Schmid opting to slide Mauro Rosales into Montero's favored withdrawn forward role, and it's worth noting that it was in covering for Montero at that position towards the beginning of last season that Rosales established himself as one of Seattle's key players. It's also possible - though less likely, given it's failure against the Timbers - that Seattle opts to give the diamond 4-4-2 another try, with Montero being replaced by another forward (most likely Sammy Ochoa or Roger Levesque, though consideration could be given to Cordell Cato as well) with Rosales in the advanced midfield position and Brad Evans shifting to the right central midfield role.
This is a decision Schmid needs to get right, because this is a game the Sounders need to win. With a trip to Real Salt Lake looming on Wednesday, the Seattle isn't in any position to come out of this game with just a point. In isolation, that's not a terrible result, but the Sounders form over the past seven games has not afforded them the luxury of looking at things in isolation. Seattle desperately needs these three points, and if they can manage to turn things around now it's still early enough for the team to take its place at the top of the standings. But a loss coupled with a very tricky run of games in July could very quickly turn this into the worst regular season in franchise history.