The 2010 season is not one that's going to be remembered fondly in the annals of DC United history. It was the club's worst year ever, and in the running for one of the worst seasons in the history of the league. While there were bright signs for the club - a solid group of promising young players, the arrival of US International striker Charlie Davies and a firm belief that coach Ben Olsen had things pointed in the right direction - the general consensus seemed to be that this was a club a year or two away from pulling themselves out of the bottom of the league. A horrendous start didn't do a great deal to dispel these beliefs, but over the past few months DC United have very quietly been playing like a very solid team, certainly better than their early season struggles would have one believe and as it stands they've put themselves into the playoff discussion.
Make no mistake, this isn't a great DC United team. But the potential is clearly there and with the addition of Dwayne De Rosario they've certainly elevated their game to the point where their still respectable 8-7-10 mark is likely not indicative of their current talent level. Charlie Davies has proven to be a fantastic signing for DCU and the mid-season addition of the enigma that is De Rosario has proven to be a masterstroke. In just 10 games with his new club De Rosario has scored six goals and is tied for the team lead with five assists and he's been a huge part of what's become a very potent attacking that also features Davies, Josh Wolff and until recently Chris Pontius; unfortunately for DCU, Pontius - to this point enjoying by far the best season of his short professional career - was lost for the season after suffering a fractured tibia in United's 3-0 victory over Chivas USA on Sunday.
Despite the significant hole left by Pontius' injury, this is still a very potent attacking team. De Rosario in particular is the kind of player that can (and has, in the past) give the Sounders fits, capable of busting holes through the midfield with his athleticism and punishing undermanned back lines with his technical skill and finishing ability. De Rosario is a force in counter attacking situations and that's where Seattle is most vulnerable, as was clearly evident in the Sounders 2-1 loss at RFK stadium earlier in the season; two goals, both on the break, nearly identical aside from Davies and Wolff switching roles the second time around. And though Seattle's defense against counter attacking play has tightened up in the months since, the addition of De Rosario has made DCU significantly more dangerous in that phase.
In general, to force them to shoot from distance and be opportunistic on the counter. That's true of all but a small handful of teams in the league, but DC United are more well equipped than most other teams to execute the strategy well. What's more, they're playing very, very well right now; their only loss in their last five games was a close 1-0 defeat at the hands of a very good Sporting Kansas City side at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park. They've lost just three MLS games since a disastrous 1-3-1 April. Though they currently sit at 5th place in the East and 11th overall, their three games in hand over most of the league gives their performance short shrift; in terms of points per match, DCU is 8th best in the league and 3rd in the East, good enough for automatic playoff qualification.
The Sounders are rightful favorites, but on paper this is their toughest remaining league match by a significant margin. With the Supporters Shield an exceedingly long shot and playoff qualification almost a certainty it's tempting to undersell the importance of the rest of the MLS schedule. But with Real Salt Lake just three points back with two games in hand and FC Dallas still within striking distance there's no guarantee of the Sounders earning a first-round bye in the playoffs. Finishing outside of the top three in the Western Conference means a mid-week trip to the east coast followed by an away game against a strong Western Conference opponent. That would put Seattle at a pretty serious disadvantage. With Sigi Schmid opting to play a lineup heavy on regulars against Herediano in Tuesday night the Sounders are likely to be at something less than full strength even before the suspension of Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and lingering injuries to Brad Evans, Erik Friberg and Osvaldo Alonso are taken into account.
All told, this is is a big game for Seattle against a tough and underrated opponent. Had the Sounders not been shown to be mortal in their last league match there would be more cause for optimism, but despite Real Salt Lake being a better side than DCU the loss was at least proof of concept. The Sounders mid-week game in Costa Rica only increases their vulnerability. There's still far more reason for optimism than pessimism but there's also at least a bit of doubt, and a loss would make the run-in to the end of the season far more interesting than anyone would have hoped.