Three things to watch for: Sounders vs. Philadelphia Union

Apr 15, 2016, 11:04 AM | Updated: 11:12 am

Seattle's struggling attack would benefit from Clint Dempsey operating closer to goal. (AP)...

Seattle's struggling attack would benefit from Clint Dempsey operating closer to goal. (AP)


Coming off last weekend’s last-gasp equalizer in Houston, the Sounders will want to ride the emotional high into Saturday evening’s home matchup against the Philadelphia Union. But they’ll want to feel those emotions in entirely different circumstances. Chad Marshall’s late goal came after Seattle was utterly dominated by Houston in the first half and in parts of the second.

It’s still an early season, but Philadelphia is second in the Eastern Conference with a 3-2-0 record and nine points. Striker C.J. Sapong has had a solid start to the season and is finally starting to develop into the talented player many saw in his early days at Sporting Kansas City. Jamaican goalkeeper Andre Blake has also played a big part in the Union’s success so far, allowing just five goals to tie for the fewest conceded in the conference.

The Sounders are going to need quite a few things to change quickly if they hope to earn themselves an unbeaten streak of equal length to the three-game losing streak with which they started the season. As I mentioned earlier this week, the Sounders’ defense has been pretty solid the last couple games, and there’s no reason to expect that to change. But that defense can’t be relied on to score goals at the other end, too. Someone is going to have to pick up the attacking slack that the Sounders have yet to truly find this season.

Here are a few things you should look out for when the match begins at 7 p.m. (pregame coverage on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM begins at 6:30):

1. Expect Sigi Schmid to try something different yet again. Schmid made his first wholesale changes two weeks ago after several international players returned from duty and were rested to varying degrees. Aaron Kovar in for Jordan Morris was the first big change in that match against Montreal, and then the following week saw Morris return for a mildly injured Nelson Valdez. Neither of those changes made much of a difference as the attack was utterly toothless for much of each match. The changes that did have an effect were those that were made in the second half against Houston, when Oalex Anderson came on for Kovar and Herculez Gomez for Morris. When those two players combined, the Sounders’ attack looked better than it had all season. I don’t expect both of those players to start on Saturday, but surely Schmid will reward one of them with a start and the other with plenty of time when the team inevitably needs it.

2. Set pieces could define this match. It’s no secret that the Sounders are heavily reliant on set pieces, even when they are ineffective with corner kicks most of the time. Out of 34 corners, the Sounders (almost always Andreas Ivanschitz) have only completed seven of them. This makes them the second-worst team from corner kicks in all of MLS. The good news is that with the other side of attacking set pieces, free kicks, the Sounders are rather good. Both Clint Dempsey and Ivanschitz have scored directly from free kicks (including against Club America) this year, and both have come close a handful of other times. More bad news, though: Philadelphia is also very solid with set pieces. Tranquillo Barnetta scored a beautiful (but slightly controversial) free kick from about 30 yards out against Orlando City to seal the win last weekend. Sapong is the fourth-most fouled player in the league and has the height and strength to be dangerous in the air on corners and free kicks. Marshall will likely have to mark him tightly in those situations.

3. Chris Pontius plays like Dempsey should. In terms of form, Philadelphia’s Chris Pontius has been doing a better Dempsey impression than the man himself this season. A former standout for D.C. United, the attacking midfielder has made one of his best starts to a season in years. His nose for the goal has been in full force as shown by his two goals in a win over Columbus earlier this season. Dempsey is a forward who has been shoved backwards on the pitch in an attempt to help the Sounders create and score goals from midfield. But Dempsey is best when he’s close to the goal and breathing down the necks of the center backs, waiting to pounce. He can do a lot of things great, but he’s made poaching goals into an art at times during his career and we haven’t seen anything like that from him so far this season. Seattle’s defense will have its hands full with Pontius backing up Sapong and the other attackers, but the Sounders’ form and the tidy midfield play of Osvaldo Alonso should keep the damage to a minimum. But Dempsey isn’t going to snatch those goals when he’s picking up the ball near the halfway line for 90 minutes. Keep an eye on both players and see which one does the best Dempsey impression on Saturday.

Spenser Davis also covers the Sounders for Sounder at Heart.

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