The Seattle Sounders emphatic 3-0 defeat of Toronto FC on Saturday, April 30 extended the team's unbeaten streak to six games, bringing them to within three points (with a game in hand) of Western Conference leaders LA Galaxy. This evening the Sounders will face off against a DC United team that can perhaps best be described as inconsistent; after opening the year with a 3-1 victory over the Columbus Crew, DC dropped consecutive games to the New England Revolution and Colorado Rapids. A 1-1 draw with the Los Angeles Galaxy and a 3-0 thrashing of Toronto FC seemed to be evidence of United having things pointed in the right direction, but DC has now lost consecutive league games to New York Red Bulls and the Houston Dynamo by a combined score of 8-1, sandwiching a 3-2 loss to New England to knock the club out of the US Open Cup.
It's been a tough start for a DC side that entered the year with high expectations of a turnaround following a disastrous 2010 campaign. The uncertainty surrounding the club's head coaching position was erased when Ben Olsen's 'interim' tag was removed in November of last year. The club made the surprise signing of the off-season when it announced a loan deal with Ligue 1 side Sochaux to bring US international striker Charlie Davies to United through the end of the season. There were high hopes for designated player Branko Bošković with the Montenegro international having a full off-season to train with and become integrated into the side and DC scored a major coup on the trade market with the addition of Dax McCarty from FC Dallas via the Portland Timbers. United weren't thought to be contenders for the Supporters Shield coming into the year but a major improvement and serious playoff consideration were almost a given.
Instead DC have struggled mightily, and while it's far too early to call the season a disappointment this isn't the start anyone had envisioned and it seems fair to say that they aren't a very good team right now. United have allowed more goals (16) than any team in MLS and while their attack has shown promise it's not nearly dangerous enough to compensate for the leaks at the back. Charlie Davies is the current MLS leader in goals scored and despite the fact that three of his five goals have come from the penalty spot he's clearly a very dangerous player that will need to be neutralized should the Sounders hope to extend their consecutive clean sheet streak to three games. Chris Pontius is a name that should be familiar to Sounders fans as well; his performance was instrumental in DC's 3-2 win at Qwest last season, being credited with two goals and taking the shot that initially completed a hat trick but was later ruled an own goal. Andy Najar has been absent from DC's starting XI for a few weeks running but with two games in one week he's a distinct possibility to start.
United look to take advantage of their speed on the wings, Charlie Davies clever runs and the vision of deep-lying playmaker Dax McCarty in order to strike with balls over the top on the counter. It's an entertaining and exciting style to watch when it's working, but the team has been inconsistent in making it work on a regular basis. There has to be some concern on the part of the Sounders however, as they've shown some vulnerability to well executed counter-attacking play in the past and DC have the players to make it work.
Seattle's center back rotation as it's been utilized so far this season would imply that Jhon Kennedy Hurtado will be getting the evening off after having played 90 minutes on Saturday and a likely emphasis on defense might see Leo Gonzalez work his way back into the starting XI. A Sounders back line of Riley-Parke-Ianni-Gonzalez seems likely. Mauro Rosales is still a game-time decision based on what is known as this point but with a tough test against a very hot Columbus team looming this weekend, don't be surprised to see him start on the bench if he does make the 18. Seattle had a great deal of success against Toronto with a diamond 4-4-2, with Alvaro Fernandez and Brad Evans in the wide attacking midfield spots and Osvaldo Alonso and Erik Friberg stacked in the center; it wouldn't be a surprise to see a similar arrangement this evening but given Sigi's predisposition to play a more counter-attacking style on the road it's difficult to be certain.
A Sounders win tonight would put them on level terms with the LA Galaxy as the top team in MLS (although it must be pointed out that Real Salt Lake have four games in hand) and would significantly lessen the pressure on the team to get a result against the Crew on Saturday. If Seattle can replicate the quality on display against Toronto they'll almost certainly be taking three points but that's far from an easy task. Despite their struggles this is a United team with a lot of talent that matches up against Seattle quite well. Despite the Sounders success at RFK Stadium in the past (the Sounders are 3-0-0 in all competitions since joining MLS) it's far from an easy place to play and if the team received an emotional boost from the crowd on Saturday it will be absent this evening. The game against Columbus will likely tell us far more about the Sounders ability to remain an elite MLS team without Steve Zakuani, but a letdown against DC could serve to put a dent in the optimism garnered against Toronto.
For more in-depth coverage of the Seattle Sounders and their upcoming match with DC United, visit SB Nation's Seattle Sounder blog Sounder At Heart.