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Colorado Rapids Vs. Seattle Sounders, Preview: Defending MLS Cup Champions A Tough Task

The Seattle Sounders have shaken off a difficult start to the year by going on a four-match unbeaten run, but keeping things rolling is going to be difficult when the Sounders travel to Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo. to face a very good Rapids team. Despite losing their last two games (the more recent the result on a stoppage-time goal at Real Salt Lake that almost certainly should have been ruled offside) the Rapids are extremely dangerous and their home-field advantage adds an extra layer of difficulty; playing a mile above sea level isn't something many teams in MLS are used to.

The Sounders split the season series with the Rapids last year, each side winning at home. Both teams have gone through some fairly significant changes in the interim of course; two players that were regulars for the Sounders last season in Sanna Nyassi and Tyrone Marshall are now role players for Colorado while Seattle has a new look to the midfield with Mauro Rosales and Erik Friberg and a new face up top in O'Brian White. Two key injuries cast a shadow over this match; Fredy Montero returned to the 18 last weekend and was instrumental in setting up Alvaro Fernandez's stoppage-time equalizer, but whether or not he is ready to play starter's minutes is still in doubt. Rapids captain Pablo Mastroeni has not played since April 3 against DC United, sidelined by a succession of nagging injuries, but returned to full training this week and is expected to be available this evening. The holding midfielder is a key for the Rapids and without his presence in the center of the pitch this is a very different team, leaning more toward a direct style than attacking through possession and steady build-up play.

Depending on whether Montero is available to start, Sounders coach Sigi Schmid's team selection will be quite interesting to see. In Montero's absence we've typically seen Rosales in the withdrawn forward role with Friberg on the right, Steve Zakuani on the left, Brad Evans as the central mid and Osvaldo Alonso in the holding role. Montero's presence complicates things, as Rosales has established himself as a regular in the time since his injury. It gets even more complex when you consider Alvaro Fernandez; after spending a good portion of the season in Schmid's doghouse Fernandez put in a fantastic performance as a substitute against the Philadelphia Union, not only scoring the equalizer but putting in the kind of complete performance that Schmid apparently felt has been lacking in the past. If Alonso, Zakuani, Rosales and Montero are all first-choice players when healthy (and it seems fair to say that this is the case) that leaves just one spot for Fernandez, Friberg and Brad Evans. El Flaco has been solidly third-choice of those three all year and it seems unlikely that one solid performance as a substitute would drastically change the pecking order, Sigi's preference between Friberg and Evans is less clear. No matter who starts the game, it's important to keep in mind that the altitude in Colorado makes it likely that the Sounders will be using all three substitutes and most likely far earlier than normal. The chances are good that Evans, Friberg and Fernandez see significant playing time.

Whoever ends up playing is going to have their hands full against a Colorado team that boasts an impressive amount of attacking talent. Conor Casey and Omar Cummings are known quantities, but newcomer Caleb Folan has impressed so far this season. The 28-year-old Republic of Ireland international joined the Rapids from English Championship side Hull City and made his presence in MLS known after scoring two goals in the Rapids' 4-1 win over DC United on April 3. The Sounders have been solid defensively on the year (though still in search of their first clean sheet) but Colorado's options up top could create some serious difficultly for an undeniably talented but at times unorganized back line.

Colorado is a strong team that's difficult to beat on their own pitch, and it would be difficult to expect a whole lot more than a point from this game. If the Sounders are going to make the leap from solid second tier MLS side to legitimate Supporters' Shield contender they're going to have to start winning games like this, but until they start doing so with regularity it's not especially reasonable to expect such an outcome. I'd look for the Sounders to play a fairly counter-attacking style, looking to utilize Zakuani's speed out wide without giving Colorado's attack a whole lot of space in which to operate. In other words: this one might be a bit of a grinder.

For previews, a scouting report, matchday cards and more, visit Sounder at Heart, SB Nation's Seattle Sounders blog.