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Matt Pentz is an award-winning sports reporter who writes weekly columns on Sounders FC for Prost Amerika. Matt’s work also appears on the Guardian, ESPNFC, FourFourTwo and Yahoo.
Wednesday night’s rivalry match between the Sounders and Whitecaps is hugely significant for both clubs for different reasons. With the ‘Caps currently in first and Seattle in fourth in the tightly bunched Western Conference, the game has obvious seeding implications, but it goes beyond just that.
Vancouver is looking to burnish its credentials as an MLS Cup frontrunner. Despite a recent run that has lifted the ‘Caps all the way to the top of West – and inspired a flattering comparison to the late-charging ’15 Timbers and ’16 Sounders from Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer on Tuesday – most still seem to view them as fringe contenders, at best. Taking out the hungry defending champs on their home field would go a long way toward silencing those skeptics.
For the Sounders, meanwhile, Wednesday night represents one of their last, best chances to find a winning combination before the postseason. They’re winless in five dating back more than a month, sprinkling just three goals over that quintet of games with none in the last two. And, put simply, they’re running out of road.
Schmetzer was frank earlier this week in saying that, 30 games into a 34-match season, he really would like to have settled on a first-choice starting lineup by now.
“We would certainly rather have a set 11,” Schmetzer said. “This current streak of not winning has forced us into looking at different possibilities.”
Is it too late? “Four games is OK. But when you get to two or one, that’s a little bit more challenging.”
That leaves Wednesday night against Vancouver, and possibly Sunday at Philadelphia, for tinkering. Once the international break hits on the other side of this weekend, Seattle will pretty much have to accept what it is, for better and for worse.
Keep a close eye on the lineups when they’re released about an hour before kickoff tonight – if Schmetzer feels either emboldened or desperate enough to shake up the status quo, this would be the game.
The defense is mostly settled. Having allowed just 37 goals this season, the second-stingiest mark in the conference, it is the reason Seattle is still in such an advantageous position to begin with. Ditto for the defensive midfield line of Osvaldo Alonso and Cristian Roldan.
The changes, if they are to come, will likely be made further up the field, where the attack looks hardly more in tune now than it did on opening day.
Sure, Jordan Morris could help solve this problem if he were to recover from his hamstring injury in time for the playoffs and recreate his heroics from last year’s run. It would be foolish, however, to put too much stock in a player still hobbling around the team practice facility and who suffered through a sophomore slump during long swathes of this season.
The front office could’ve done more, too, to bring in summer reinforcements. This squad has been crying out for a goal-dangerous winger for the better part of two years now, and despite the ability to add another Designated Player, it hasn’t, and the window has long since shut.
On paper, the most clear-cut attacking combination of the current options flanks Clint Dempsey with Nicolas Lodeiro and Victor Rodriguez behind lone forward Will Bruin. That’s how Schmetzer opted to line up during the 2-0 loss at Real Salt Lake this past Saturday. In reality, they didn’t quite mesh. All three of Dempsey, Lodeiro and Rodriguez like cutting inside to create centrally, filling similar channels and throwing the team’s balance out of whack.
There’s no obvious fit, but with his team mired in a self-described “rut,” Schmetzer might have to try. He could revert to the look he used for the scoreless draw in Dallas, with Joevin Jones pushing up to left wing in front of Nouhou Tolo. Sure, the Sounders didn’t look great in that one, either, but at least Jones a distinctive skill set from the rest of that line of three.
“We’ve got personnel choices,” Schmetzer said. “Each player plays that position a little differently. Take Joevin and Victor. When I play Joevin at left mid, he plays it a little bit differently than Victor does. We’ll certainly look at everything, look at matchups.”
He could take a look further down his roster, as well. Harry Shipp seems to have fallen out of favor since breaking his hand in Colorado on the Fourth of July, but he has a pedigree as a game-changer. Aaron Kovar has been limited in action this season but has a solid left foot. Prodigal son Lamar Neagle is back in town and his wormed his way into the rotation even if he has yet to start.
Schmetzer might also consider using Dempsey up top, shifting Lodeiro toward his preferred central creator role and filling in the pieces from there.
If that sounds drastic so late in the season, well, the Sounders certainly look like a team that could use the jolt. Wednesday isn’t their last chance to build up some positive momentum, but it’s getting there.