The Seattle Sounders are, as former Mariners broadcaster Dave Henderson might say, "on the roll" at the moment. A brief blip in the form of a 0-0 draw with Chivas USA notwithstanding, the Sounders have been on fire for the entire month of August, shaking off a difficult July to record wins against San Francisco of Panama, Sporting Kansas City, CD Communicaciones, FC Dallas and Monterrey, outscoring their opponents 10-2 along the way. Four clean sheets in six games have eased fears about a defensive breakdown and though things haven't been as impressive on the attacking side of the ball the Sounders have also faced some very stiff competition and on five of those six occasions have done enough to win.
There's a swagger to this team these days, a feeling that three points are almost inevitable. And for the most part it's been earned; the Sounders have lost one game in MLS since May 25th. Their only other competitive loss during that stretch very nearly doesn't count as it was the first leg of the qualifying tie against San Francisco which the Sounders ultimately won. There's hasn't been a team in MLS more impressive over the past month than the Sounders, and rather than a temporary blip it feels as though the team is finally coming into their own.
Meanwhile, as the Sounders have been racking up wins, points and good vibes, the Columbus Crew have been very quietly climbing their way to the top of the Eastern Conference standings. Granted, their 40 points would have them in 5th place in the Western Conference behind the Colorado Rapids, but their form of late has been fairly impressive. The Crew are far from a juggernaut, but rumors of their demise have been overstated to say the least and as it stands they look a good bet to claim the top spot in the East and set themselves up for a nice run in the playoffs.
How they've gotten to where they are isn't much of a mystery; their bread-and-butter is a rock-solid back line and they win games by shutting down the opposition's attack. The Crew rank 13th in the league with 29 goals scored and have scored three or more goals in league play just three times, but when you're as stingy as Columbus you don't really need to be an attacking dynamo to rack up a lot of points. And with the Crew in good position heading into the home stretch, they'll be looking at a point as a pretty decent result on the road against the Sounders.
It's probably pretty easy to guess what's coming next, but it needs to be said in any case; the Sounders struggle to break down bunkered teams and if the Crew would be happy to escape with a point the odds of them digging in and bunkering down are quite good. The key, as it usually is in these situations, is for Seattle to break through early. Forcing the Crew to go on the offensive means vulnerabilities at the back, and vulnerabilities at the back can only be a good thing for the Sounders.
Along those lines, the Crew do have some concerns in defense. Two of their likely starters-Josh Gardner and Eric Gehrig-have a combined 22 appearances between them this season with Gardner (a converted midfielder playing left back) accounting for 16 of those.There's little reason to suspect that Mauro Rosales will have a great deal of difficulty asserting himself against Gardner, and Gehrig seems ripe for the picking paired against Fredy Montero. The other key element in this equation is, of course, who starts up top alongside Montero; the most reasonable expectation would seem to be Mike Fucito given that Nate Jaqua, Roger Levesque and Pat Noonan all put in long shifts against Monterrey, but it is, as always, anyone's guess.
The Sounders are rightfully favorites in this game, and given their form over the past month it's tough to doubt them. But there are legitimate reasons to be concerned ahead of this contest, and any dropped points will mean that any hopes of the Supporters Shield are all but over and any advantage gained over FC Dallas a week ago will have largely been wasted. There's the spectre of last season to deal with as well, when a streaking Sounders team fell off right at the end of the year and ended up flaming out in the first round of the playoffs for a second consecutive year. The Sounders have shown every indication of having taken things to the next level so far this season, but any time they meet quality competition the threat of crashing back to Earth lingers somewhere in the background. With so many important matches to play in the near future, any let-up could be disastrous. It's never a good time for a let down game, but this is a particularly bad one.