Three things to watch: Sounders vs Red Bulls

Jun 17, 2016, 4:00 PM | Updated: Jun 18, 2016, 11:49 am

Osvaldo Alonso was key in the Sounders' big 2-1 victory over Cascadia rival Vancouver. (AP)...

Osvaldo Alonso was key in the Sounders' big 2-1 victory over Cascadia rival Vancouver. (AP)


It seems like it’s been forever since the Sounders played an MLS match, especially given all the international soccer happening in the US and in Seattle specifically. But as league play resumes this week, a Clint Dempsey-less Sounders will head to New Jersey to take on the Red Bulls for the first time this season.

As I’ve noted in earlier previews, Eastern Conference records have the tendency to flatter a team’s overall record this season — the West is pretty dominant so far in 2016, though the gap is starting to close a bit. The Red Bulls sit in second place in the East with 19 points and a 6-7-1 record. This would barely put them above the playoff line if they were in the West. Either way, they’ve had a better season than Seattle, which currently sits in ninth place with 16 points in conference play.

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That’s a pretty close points gap, especially considering how far apart the teams’ respective positions are. Seattle has a great record against Eastern Conference teams this season, only losing once in five matches.

Here are three things to look for in this match, which kicks off in New Jersey and on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM at 4:30 p.m. Sunday:

1. The Joevin Jones conundrum. For the first time in a couple years, the Sounders have a standout left-back as well as a backup that’s nearly as good. Joevin Jones has been a revelation this season, first at left-back for most of the season, and in the last few matches at left midfielder/winger. He created one goal and scored another against DC United before the Copa break, and scored the Sounders’ second goal in their win over the Kitsap Pumas on Wednesday. The question is, what will head coach Sigi Schmid do with Jones on Sunday? Should he start at left-back? Should Remick start at left-back with Jones at left winger? Should Jones start on the bench? Personally, I like the second option — giving Jones the chance to make those crazy runs could be more effective and create more chances over 90 minutes rather than just 15 or 20. But as with Oalex Anderson, it’s possible that this effectiveness is highest against a fatigued defense. It’ll be very interesting to see where Sigi goes with this situation.

2. Red Bulls are flying high… against easy competition. New York is currently in a four-match winning streak in all competitions, with a goal differential of plus-12 in that timespan. But the teams the Red Bulls faced in those matches aren’t exactly the best — three are below them in the East, and the fourth team was USL side Rochester Rhinos, whom they beat 1-0 in the US Open Cup fourth round. In fact, the Red Bulls have only won twice against West opposition this season, though that does include an impressive 4-0 defeat of FC Dallas in April. The Red Bulls are a solid team brimming with confidence, but the Sounders will be the biggest test they have faced in weeks. I think the visitors will prove to be quite the handful for the home side.

3. Kljestan vs. Alonso could be the matchup to watch. One of Seattle’s most long-serving players, Osvaldo Alonso has turned back the clock this season to show that he’s still at the top of his game. His work in midfield has prevented this season from being far worse than it could have been at this point for Seattle, and he’s shackled some of the best midfielders in the league. He’ll need to do the same on Sunday, as former US international Sacha Kljestan has been running away with the assists lead this season — eight in 14 appearances, three more than the closest competition. He’s not a one trick pony either — his assists have come in many different ways, from crosses to throughballs, so it’s not an easy task to prevent him from earning more. If Alonso can stop Kljestan from putting in dangerous balls for Bradley Wright-Phillips and Mike Grella, the Sounders have a great chance at keeping a clean sheet against New York.

Spenser Davis also covers the Sounders for Sounder at Heart.

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