Three keys as Sounders look to keep playoff hopes alive vs Chicago
While it’s not as bad as it was in July, the Sounders are facing another bit of fixture congestion with a match against the Chicago Fire at CenturyLink Field on Wednesday, just three days after their big 4-2 win in Los Angeles over the Galaxy. Not only did they play an exhausting match in 90-plus degree weather, but they had to immediately travel back to Seattle and prepare for another crucial one at home.
Despite the unexpected result on Sunday, the Sounders absolutely must play every home game to win if they hope to make the playoffs. This likely makes head coach Brian Schmetzer’s job even tougher, especially considering that the team could still be without Brad Evans and Erik Friberg, limiting the number of quality players that could rotate into the squad for this one.
Chicago is having an absolutely horrendous season. Even though the Sounders had an awful start and first half, they have at least managed to claw their way up the standings and into playoff contention. The Fire has had no such luck. Chicago is in last place in the Eastern Conference with the fewest points of any team in all of Major League Soccer at 27 and only one win out of 14 away matches in all of 2016.
If there’s any match with points that are ripe for the taking for the Sounders, this one is absolutely it. But even the worst team in MLS can’t be taken lightly, and the home side can’t afford to drop any points.
Here are three keys to Wednesday’s match, which can be heard at 7:30 on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM:
Can Schmetzer afford to alter his starting lineup? Again, despite what seems to be a relatively easy match, the gravity of the Sounders’ situation means that very few risks can be taken. The team has finally started to get a groove since losing Clint Dempsey, and breaking up that rhythm seems foolish. But fatigue has surely set in for some players, and the Sounders’ match against the Whitecaps in Vancouver on Sunday will certainly be much more difficult and (potentially) important than this one. So which players can Schmetzer afford to swap out against Chicago? Roman Torres could possibly use a break, since he’s been playing so much since his recent return. But if Evans isn’t available, that leaves Zach Scott as the only option at the back. This wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, as I think Scott could deal with Chicago forward Luis Solignac fairly well, but it’s still a bit of a risk. Oniel Fisher, who has mostly impressed in his appearances this season, could come in at either fullback position. Joevin Jones might be nursing a mild injury, so either Fisher or Dylan Remick could come in for him. But Fisher is more natural at right-back, and could be better for dealing with Chicago forward David Accam than the mostly ineffectual Tyrone Mears. Replacing both fullbacks is a risky idea, though, so if Jones can’t start, Mears probably should keep his place. On the other side of the field, the Sounders really have no solid replacements for any of the front four players. Aaron Kovar will probably make the bench after being out for a couple months with an injury, and Nelson Valdez is (at this point) only good for finishing games out.
The Sounders must control possession. Chicago has the worst average possession in all of MLS, which means that the team just can’t seem to hold onto the ball for very long in most matches. The CenturyLink crowd won’t be helpful either, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Sounders pass and move up and down the field with ease. We saw how well they can do this against the Galaxy, such as in the buildup to Jordan Morris’ second goal. The squad seems comfortable with Nicolas Lodeiro and Flaco Fernandez at this point, and vice versa. Flaco’s long pass/clearance before Morris’ second goal was proof of this, too. The Sounders will need to keep possession and find those openings for each other in the hopes of getting a goal (or two) to secure three points in this one. Holding onto possession means nothing if they can’t turn it into goals; one point from this match is unacceptable. Keep the ball, work it up the pitch and create chances for Morris and company to fire into the back of the net.
Chicago likes to shoot … but is pretty bad at it. Whereas Los Angeles is at the top of the list of shots per game (15.6) and nearly leading the league in goals scored (53), the Fire take the second-most shots (15.1) per game but has only scored the third-fewest goals (36) in all of MLS. This makes it a little easier for Seattle’s defense, but it also means the Sounders will have to stay on their toes for 90 minutes. The Fire might be bad at shooting, but the team does it so much that one eventually makes its away into the back of the net. The Sounders’ midfield will need to give the Fire few opportunities to take good shots, and the center backs must keep Solignac and Accam from getting any space at all in the final third. It’s not ideal to get bombarded from long-range for 90 minutes, but it’s far better than having it happen from inside the penalty box.
Spenser Davis also covers the Sounders for Sounder at Heart.