At full strength, the New York Red Bulls are one of the best on-paper teams in MLS history. The big names are a huge part of that; Rafa Marquez has performed at a very high level and Thierry Henry has been an absolute revelation this season, giving the Red Bulls more than most would have expected after last year's somewhat lackluster debut. This team isn't just about the international superstars however; emerging US National teamers Juan Agudelo and Tim Ream have had breakout years. Veteran Port Vale and Notts County striker Luke Rodgers has been a fantastic signing and former Toronto FC midfielder Dwayne DeRosario rounds out what is, at full strength, the most dangerous attacking team in the league.
That the Red Bulls are currently in first place in the Eastern Conference is no surprise given that they have two of the ten best defenders and attacking players in MLS on the roster and a surrounding cast that would start on most teams in the league. Fortunately for the Sounders, that's not the same New York Red Bulls team they'll be facing tonight. Rafa Marquez, Tim Ream and Juan Agudelo are all playing in the Gold Cup. Thierry Henry will miss tonight's game due to a red card for what the league has described as "violent conduct" and Luke Rodgers is out with an injury. There are few teams in the world that could maintain their typical level of performance without five of their six best players, and in a parity league such as MLS that's even more the case. Quite simply, the loss of these five players has taken the Red Bulls from one of the strongest sides to visit Qwest Field so far this season to arguably the worst.
When the MLS schedule was first released (you remember, it was approximately ten minutes before first kick) most Sounders fans likely looked at this week's games and saw the New England Revolution's visit to CenturyLink Field as the far easier task of the two. Things look a bit different now, and Seattle could finally be the beneficiary of some good luck for a change. Six points from these two games would bring Seattle right back to the periphery of the Supporters Shield conversation and six points is not an unreasonable expectation from these two games, but he Sounders still must take advantage of the circumstances and their ability to do so at home this year has been a recurring theme.
The two biggest things to watch in this match are somewhat related; on the attacking end, how will Seattle do in terms of breaking down a very poor but almost certainly bunkered back line? The Red Bulls starting defense is likely to be around the same talent level of an average MLS Reserve League team but the Sounders have had great difficulty in making headway against plenty of poor back lines this season. Perhaps more important is how well Seattle will be able to cope with the counter attacking play of New York, which despite the loss of Agudelo and Henry should still be quite dangerous. Dwayne DeRosario and Dane Richards are very fast players who make excellent runs in space, and the Sounders have watched dominant possession turn into a goal the other way on more than a few occasions over the past few years. The concerns are even greater with Jhon Kennedy Hurtado not available due to suspension and the recent disappearance of Patrick Ianni from the squad.
Still, the Sounders have to be considered heavy favorites in this one and rightly so. Not to sound like a broken record, but a failure to take three points from this game would have to be considered a pretty massive failure on Seattle's part. Breaks like these don't come along often, and any momentum gained from Saturday's victory over Toronto FC would likely be halted completely by a loss tonight.