FRISCO, TX - MAY 09: Eddie Johnson #7 of the Seattle Sounders FC heads the ball against Hernan Pertuz #13 of the FC Dallas at FC Dallas Stadium on May 9, 2012 in Frisco, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
A greatly improved FC Dallas side look to prevent the Seattle Sounders from reclaiming second place in the Western Conference.
The Seattle Sounders have been doing their part in an effort to climb the Western Conference standings these past few weeks, but unfortunately their nearest competition has not been cooperating. Real Salt Lake edged a 1-0 win over DC United last night, while the LA Galaxy were impressive in a 2-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps. The Sounders enter this evening's game with three in hand over RSL and LA, but on points alone they currently stand fourth in the table. Having games in hand can seem a blessing, but they can be something of a curse as well; most mental calculations will grant them as wins, but when things don't turn out that way it can quickly change the feel of a team's season.
And tonight's opponent presents a tricky test for the Sounders. In sixth place with just 32 points, FC Dallas may not seem like the most daunting of foes. But a great deal of their less than impressive record is down to a horrendous start that saw them near the bottom of the table for much of the first few months of the season. As of late, FC Dallas has been an almost completely different side, with a 2-0 loss to LA last weekend being their first in nearly a month. August included big and impressive wins against RSL and Vancouver, and on the strength of their improved for a season that once looked completely lost could end with a trip to the playoffs. Dallas still has a bit of a mountain to climb, trailing Vancouver by five points, but with the Whitecaps struggling mightily the fifth spot in the standings is still well within reach.
One key to the improved form of FC Dallas has been Fabian Castillo. The 20-year-old Colombian striker has taken a major step forward this season, becoming much more inventive and mature as a player as the season has worn on. That Castillo is currently listed as questionable on the injury report is a major blow, as the tricky, speedy forward is exactly the kind of player that tends to give Seattle difficulty. Assuming Castillo is not available, much of the threat will be posed by Blas Perez. Perez made his return to action last week against the Galaxy, after missing nearly three months with a foot sprain. The 31-year-old Panama international is about as big a contrast from Castillo as there could be, relying on his size, strength and positional awareness to create danger. Though the Sounders have been much better at neutralizing powerful center forwards this season than in years past, a player of Perez's quality will always present a challenge.
Getting the ball to Perez (and posing more than a bit of a threat in their own right) will be David Ferreira and Brek Shea. After missing more than a year due to a broken ankle, Ferreira has rounded back into form of late and is back to pulling all of the strings for FC Dallas. This season has been a difficult one for Shea and there were times when it looked as though he was on his way out, but there's no denying his talent and much like the rest of his teammates he's seen his form tick up gradually as the season has gone deeper into summer. Zach Scott has been tasked with shutting down Shea at times in the past, but after going a full 90 on Thursday against Caledonia it will be interesting to see if Adam Johannson gets the nod instead. In truth, that's likely the only real question where the lineup is concerned. The regulars that played on Thursday are more than capable of putting in another shift on short rest, and with Eddie Johnson and Christian Tiffert well rested there's little reason to think the Sounders won't be starting a full first-choice lineup.
They're likely going to need it. In some ways, it's a bit unlucky for Seattle that two of the seasons three meetings come in the late days of the season, as FC Dallas has improved significantly since the first meeting between the two sides. Those are the breaks, unfortunately, and if the Sounders hope to have a run at the top of the standings before the end of the season they'll need to pick up three points in this game. That's attainable; Seattle is playing as well as anyone in the league as of late, with little reason to think they're going to be slowing down. But at this late stage in the season, one little slip can dramatically alter expectations. Seattle is a better team on paper, but with FC Dallas playing for their postseason lives it is impossible to underestimate the tenacity with which they'll be clawing for a win. It's coming down to the wire, and a little bit of playoff-level intensity may be just what the Sounders need to take this season to another level.