The Seattle Sounders roll into PPL Park on Saturday (4pm, 6abc) looking beat-up and beaten down. They have injury issues up front, a 1-3-2 record and they’ve been away from game competition for two weeks. But as coaches and players have remarked in the last few days, it would be a mistake for the Philadelphia Union to take this game lightly.
Despite the bad record and health issues, there’s still a lot of talent on the Sounders and there are signs that the last-place Western Conference club may be ready to turn it up a notch. Kevin Kinkaid has a great break-down of Seattle’s roster on philadelphiaunion.com, including more on those injury question marks. You’ll have to forgive the multiple Star Wars references (it’s Star Wars Day at PPL on Saturday!).
But it’s worth noting that the Sounder’s only win came in their last game (1-0 at Colorado) and the two weeks off probably benefitted Seattle more than it hurt, because it’s given their hurting players a chance to heal. It’s also given the club a break following an exhausting extended run in the CONCACAF International Tourney in Mexico that only ended a few days prior to the match with the Rapids. Now, with the rigors of international travel and high-level, non-league games behind them, the Sounders can concentrate on MLS games without any other distractions. Traditionally, this is exactly the time of the season when Seattle usually starts playing better. In fact, the club is something like 8-1 in the first MLS game following CONCACAF.
Saturday’s game includes a special footnote: it’s the first time defender Jeff Parke will face his old squad since joining the Union this year (Parke played three seasons in Seattle). Union fans can only hope the big veteran pressence will be missed in the Sounder’s defensive third.
The game holds a lot of importance for the Union, on several levels. After last week’s dissappointing 2-0 loss in New England, the club has slipped just out of a play-off position in the Eastern Conference and a few teams have started to pull away. What’s more, the Seattle match marks the third of four straight clashes with sub-.500 clubs. So far, Philadelphia has only gathered 3 of the possible 12 points this “light” stretch offers and a loss this weekend would drop that number to no better than 6, a tough pill to swallow considering that the schedule gets tougher after next week’s road match with struggling Chicago. The following Wednesday, for example, the Union plays a home match against defending MLS champion Los Angeles. It’s early, but it’s hard to make up those “easier” points later in the year if you’re on the bottom looking up.
An examination of this weekend’s schedule reveals that two teams ahead of the Union, New York and Columbus, are playing each other, so a Union win guarantees some catch-up there. Third-place Houston plays in L.A. on Sunday which also could be good for Philadelphia. The first-place Montreal Impact get a match with a mediocre San Jose club, but I’m not sure surprising Montreal is the team the Union should be worrying about right now, anyway.
The Union has been playing better offensively for several weeks. Even in last weekend’s shut-out loss in New England, the club had several good chances batted away by big net-minder Bobby Shuttleworth. Jack McInerney has just been named Player of the Month for April and his 6 goals still ties him for the league lead with surging L.A. midfielder Mike Magee.
The biggest challenge moving forward, in my view, falls to goaltender Zac MacMath and the back line. As Coach John Hackworth continues to preach an aggressive offensive style, the defense will be called upon to come up big on turn-overs and counter rushes. They’ve given-up a lot of goals on hard rushes lately. That needs to change. Meanwhile, the McInerney’s, Okugo’s, Casey’s and Le Toux’s of the world have to break through and get the Union back in the net.
Saturday’s game is not only Star Wars Day at PPL, but Channel 6 Day as well, so look for a few of us from Action News down at the Park.