By most metrics, the 2011 regular season will go down as the best in the Seattle Sounders brief MLS history. From the objective (most wins, most points, likely highest finish in the overall standings, performance across all competitions) to the subjective (quality of play, obstacles overcome) the Sounders have taken things to another level this season. But in the end, this is a team that expects to win trophies. The front office has made no secret of their expectations of the players. Neither have the fans; already over 33,000 tickets have been sold, breaking last season's US Open Cup final record of 31,311, with a crowd of 35,000+ expected. This team and this city want and expect to win this trophy.
And if you're just glancing at the standings to see where the Sounders opponent the Chicago Fire stack up, you may feel as though that shouldn't be too much trouble. The Fire currently sit in 7th place in the MLS Eastern Conference, their 37 points good enough for just 14th in the league. And the Fire's road to the final has been significantly less than taxing; the Fire advanced to the quarterfinals after a narrow 1-0 win against USL Pro side Rochester Rhinos. They then defeated a New York Red Bulls team that cared so little about the competition they didn't even bother to bring their coach (or many of their regulars) to the game, making the 4-0 scoreline seem quite a bit less impressive. The Fire's semifinal opponent was the Richmond Kickers, another USL Pro team, and Chicago advanced (albeit under some fairly bizarre circumstances) with a slim 2-1 win.
The Sounders road to the final has been a bit more treacherous. After a narrow victory over the USL Professional Development League Kitsap Pumas, the Sounders defeated a strong LA Galaxy team 3-1. That set the stage for a tense and dramatic semifinal against FC Dallas that saw both teams start full-strength sides and the Sounders emerge with a 1-0 win. It was one of Seattle's most hard-fought and dramatic victories all season and with the Fire at that time being in the basement of MLS it appeared as though the final may be little more than a formality.
Of course, things have changed just a bit in the last month. Jeremiah Oshan of Sounder At Heart explored this is greater detail, but the gist of it is this; over the past two months, the only teams that have performed better than the Fire across all competitions have been the Galaxy (well on their way to the best regular season in post-shootout MLS history) and the Sounders (whose August was one of the most impressive months of any team in league history and who have cooled off only slightly in the days since.) It's hard to overstate how bad the Fire were early in the season, but Frank Klopas has done a fantastic job of shuffling personnel and making tactical adjustments and the Fire have been a fantastic team for too long of a stretch to consider it any kind of an aberration. If not for their horrific start to the season the Fire would likely be considered outside MLS Cup contenders based on their form over the past few months.
Make no mistake, the Sounders are still the stronger team. There's a very good chance Mauro Rosales will be in the 18, and it's entirely possible he gets the start. Sigi Schmid has done a tremendous job juggling lineups throughout a very congested stretch of the season and that means Seattle will be able to play a full complement of rested first-choice players. The Fire will be doing the same, but in terms of overall talent they're no match for Seattle. The danger points have far more to do with specific matchup issues; though the Sounders have improved against the counterattack as the season has progressed, speedy forwards can still cause headaches for Seattle's back line. Chicago's striker pairing of Patrick Nyarko and Dominic Oduro have speed to burn and creative midfielders Marco Pappa and Sebastian Grazzini have the skill to get the ball to them in space.
Keeping the counter in check is going to require one of two things; either three of the back four stay deep far more than is usually the case (meaning the Sounders width in attack is compromised) or that both of the central midfielders play in more of a holding than attacking role (meaning more of the pressure to create will be in Fredy Montero.) Neither of these adjustments would severely compromise what the Sounders tend to look to do in the attack, but a failure to shut down the counter could force multiple adjustments that almost certainly would damage Seattle's ability to take the game to Chicago. As is usually the case against teams that pose their most significant threat on the break, the key for Seattle will be to force Chicago to open the game up and to push forward rather than sit deep. Chicago is not a defensive team, but the more fluid the game becomes the less of a chance they have.
Ultimately, that's the Sounders biggest advantage. Chicago is a team that likes to play a flowing, possession-heavy game but they're clearly not the Sounders equal in that department. To give themselves the best chance of winning they'll have to abandon (at least to some degree) the the style of play that has made them so much better over the past few months. That's not to say they don't present a huge obstacle. The playoffs are all but out of the question; this is their season. As seriously as Seattle has taken the US Open Cup, this game has been the Fire's singular focus for nearly two years. It's a chance to reclaim their standing as Kings Of The Cup, a chance to take a hugely improved team into the CONCACAF Champions League and a chance to claim a victory other than the moral out of such a dramatic turnaround. This is a dangerous team,
Luckily, the Sounders are so good it's unbelievable. So there's not too much reason to worry.