The Seattle Sounders take a three-game unbeaten streak to the East Coast — but it won’t be easy.
First up is a Saturday match against the Philadelphia Union (1 p.m. KONG TV), which sits improbably first in the Eastern Conference. The Union, 3-1-0, is aiming for its third straight home win this season — having dismantled the New York Red Bulls, 1-0, last week and Vancouver earlier.
The Sounders FC, 1-2-2, will round out its two-game road swing against the MLS Cup Champions Colorado Rapids on April 22.
The Union is a defensively tough team — a characteristic of Coach Peter Nowak. Even in its inaugural season, the Union defense was stingy. However, it struggled to put goals in the net. This year, Nowak acquired forward Carlos Ruiz to improve scoring options along with former Sounder Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Mwanga, who was the No. 1 pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft.
Even though Ruiz and the rest of the Union’s young strike force have yet to unleash a torrent of goals, Nowak, the pragmatist, has continued to refortify his defense.
He added veteran Colombian National Team goalie Faryd Mondragon, 39, who currently is the top goal keeper in the league, with three shutouts. Mondragon leads the top defense in the league, giving a goal just once in four regular league games.
The Union also acquired veteran and U.S. National Team player Brian Carroll from Columbus — a defensive midfielder. He plays alongside veteran speedy winger Justin Mapp, if healthy, as well as former U.S. National Team defender Danny Califf, who anchors the team’s smothering defense.
“Obviously defensively they havent given much up,” said coach Sigi Schmid. “Every game has been a 1-0 game either for them or against them. Defensively they have got a good mindset.
“All 11 guys get back and help on that defensive side of things,” Schmid said. “Their goalkeeper has kept them well organized and theyve done well. They bend a little bit, sort of like a willow, but they dont break.”
The key for Seattle, Schmid said, will be to find a way to get behind the Union defense. The team practiced just how it might do that in training on Wednesday. “We wanted to work on our ability to get behind the defense in the early exercise,” he said, “and then we wanted to work on just reacting when balls get played in behind us, just working on our reaction defensively.”
For Seattle’s offense, which has finally found its scoring touch, Philadelphia will prove to be a stern test. It appears top scorer Fredy Montero will make the trip to PPL Park with a cast on his arm. Schmid said it’s too early to determine whether Montero will play, but he did participate in full training on Wednesday.
The Sounders have other options. O’Brian White and Mauro Rosales will likely start again up top and should prove to be a handful for Philly’s defense — as will Steve Zakuani and Erik Friberg, who will play out wide. White has scored two goals in two games and Zakuani has opened his account with two goals and one assist.
Seattle won’t be bashful about taking shots. Montero and White still lead the league in shots taken and shots put on the frame. The emergence of Rosales, the former Argentine national team player, should also be a factor in the game. His passing, his vision and his willingness to battle is creating opportunities that could give the Union defense all kinds of fits.
For Seattle’s defense, the key will be to stifle Philly’s rhythm. Though the defense played reasonably well against the Fire in the first half, it did struggle in the second and depended on Kasey Keller to make at least two world-class saves. Seattle’s defenders will need to keep the Union’s strike force in front of them and close down their threats — Ruiz’s cleverness, Le Toux’s energy and Mwanga’s speed.
I think they are still trying to find their rhythm offensively. Carlos Ruiz is a pretty traditional type of center forward who likes to stay in the box and stay high so Seba (Sebastien Le Toux) is able to run off of him and move to different spaces,” Schmid said. “But sometimes Mwanga is out there and Seba ends up playing wide right because they are playing more of a 4-4-2 this year than they have last year. It all depends on the personnel they put out on the field.
The Union came out in a 4-2-3-1 formation against New York in the second half, with Mapp on the left and Le Toux dropping back to a right winger role. Ruiz played as a lone striker.
In the first half, when New York was basically playing five on the defensive half and five on the offensive half, there was a big space in the middle, explained Nowak during the post-game press conference. With the 4-2-3-1 formation, you have the guy who will be able to take care of this, and not allow New York those passes that bypass our midfield line.
“We found those spaces where we can get the ball and play forward to either Danny Mwanga or Sebastien Le Toux. There was a purpose and design. We wanted to cut off those passing lines, the balls that bypass our midfield.
How the two sides line up Saturday will be one of the intriguing plot lines of the match. Schmid likely will deploy his “flexible” 4-4-2, with Rosales playing as a withdrawn forward and White stationing himself as the lone center forward. Expect Zakuani to stretch the defenses wide on the left and watch for Friberg and Rosales interchanging roles on the right side. Friberg will drift into the middle as Rosales searches for space out wide on the right.
Saturday’s match will mark the third meeting between the expansion teams of 2009 and 2010. Philadelphia’s first match was a 2-0 loss in Seattle on March 25, 2010, and the Sounders were the first visitor to PPL Park on June 27, 2010, losing 3-1.
In its brief existence, Sounders FC has fared reasonably well on the road and the has experienced success on the East Coast. PPL Park and New England’s Gillette Stadium are the only venues Seattle has yet to claim at least a point.