They always say that there is no bigger game in sports than the next one on the schedule. That is especially true when a team is struggling mightily and looking to get themselves back on the right track. This will absolutely be the case on Saturday night when Sporting Kansas City take on Seattle Sounders in their eighth (and near final) straight game on the road to open up their 2011 Major League Soccer season.
It has been well-documented, Sporting KC's struggles since the seasion opening victory. Since their entrance into MLS in 2009, Seattle have continually been an upper-echelon team in the league, but perhaps Sporting are catching them at the right time, with the Sounders struggling a bit of late, as well. There will be three points up for grab that each team desperately wants and needs.
As we like to do whenever possible, I've been in touch with the writers over at Sounder At Heart, SB Nation's Sounders blog, and looked to one of the best sources for Sounders information anywhere on the Internet. His name is Dave Clark, and despite being a Sounders fan, he still seems to be good people, so here were my three biggest questions for Dave ahead of Saturday's game.
TDW: With the long-term injury to winger Steve Zakuani, the Sounders have had to severely alter their tactical approach to a much more narrow diamond shape in the midfield. Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes talked in depth about that aspect of their tactical approach. Who is the guy, or guys, who have stepped up in that part of the field in this time of transition and helped to make things run smoothly?
DC: Seattle has used very wide midfielders in a kind of 4-1-3-1-1 formation for most of their time in MLS. It is a familiar system if you watch Sigi's previous teams, but due to Steve Zakuani and his dynamic ability Seattle has tried to have their wide mids go really wide, and even really high. In some ways they have played a 4-2-3-1. With Zakuani out and no real similar replacement the shift has been to play a more traditional narrow 4-<4>-2 with Alvaro Fernandez and Mauro Rosales being the wide men.
The Sounders have a lot more of these more convenational types of wide mids, with Erik Friberg and Brad Evans also suited to the role in a starting capacity. Regardless of who plays though the team now gets more width from the fullbacks and the space just at the top of the 18 may have 3 or 4 bodies in it. It is forcing the team to learn more movements within crowded spaces and better time on goal runs due to the shift. Seattle is shifting its approach and gets better, but they certainly aren't used to it yet.
Also, if you haven't checked out the latest version of The Daily Wiz's podcast, "Ted And Trent Talkin' Touches", let me tell you right now - you must do so. We were joined by Sounder At Heart's Jeremiah Oshan to record a collaborative preview of Saturday's game. Not to be proud, but it is an amazing segment, so once again, many thanks to Jeremiah for doing that with us. You can find said great podcast episode right here, or on our iTunes page.
TDW: How has the change in midfield affected the forwards? With the ball coming through the center of the park more often, it certainly has to change the way they play and where the service comes from.
DC: Fredy Montero is picking up the ball earlier playing as both withdrawn forward and center attacking mid at the same time. He is quite good at this, but it leaves him with most of his passing options being square rather than through. He is either going to take more shots from distance, or he will have to find ways to one-two off the target man.
Right now that target man is Nate Jaqua. Who, though much maligned in the Sounder community, does have success in that role when healthy. Like many in Rave Green he had some injury issues, and now lingering fitness issues. In 2009 he and Montero were a terrific partnership, and maybe they can work it again. If Seattle looks for more mobility at the other forward you could see Roger Levesque as a psuedo target, or the team could go small and use young Americans like Mike Fucito or Lamar Neagle who are both potent scoring threats in non-MLS play.
TDW: Simple question: why is James Riley still around? As someone who watches Seattle every other week or so, it always seems he is the one making the pivotal mistakes and allowing opponents' goals.
DC: James Riley is a converted right midfielder, and though he's been a fullback in this league for some time you can see his natural tendancy to get forward leaving him out of position a couple times a game. You also note that there are times when he gets turned, and leaves his mark open to cross the ball well.
He's on the team though because he does get forward well, better than most even, and certainly better than any on the team. While he doesn't add goals, he has tallied several key assists, and that width forces some honesty from the opposition as well. He will start because Zach Scott is the back-up there. Scott has none of the advantages of Riley, while lacking speed. Fullback is clearly Seattle's weakest position.