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Scoping the Enemy: Seattle Sounders

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New York City FC faces its toughest test of the season just when they need a win most. Let's take a look at what they're up against.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

THE VITALS

TEAM NAME: Seattle Sounders

COACH: Sigi Schmid

STADIUM: CenturyLink Field

FORMATION: 4-4-2. It’s boring and standard, but when you’ve got two league MVP caliber strikers, a 2014 MLS Best XI Defender in Chad Marshall and a plus center back in Brad Evans, you don’t need to re-invent the wheel.

2015 RECORD: 4-1-2 (3rd West), 13 points, + 5 goal differential (second best in MLS)

2014 RECORD: 20-10-4 (1st West), 64 points, +15 goal differential

PLAYOFFS: Lost in Western Conference Finals to LA Galaxy

U.S. OPEN CUP: Won the whole damn thing. The Sounders beat four MLS teams en route to the Open Cup by an aggregate 13-3 score. They kicked off the tournament with a 5-0 beatdown of PSA Elite. After narrowly escaping the San Jose Earthquakes in the second round 4-1 on penalties, Seattle hit the turbo button, crushing Portland, Chicago (6-0!) and Philadelphia.

Since 2009, the U.S. Open Cup has been the Seattle Invitational Tournament. The Sounders have brought the Cup back to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, 2010, 2011 and then again in 2014.

PLAYERS TO WATCH (OTHER THAN CLINT DEMPSEY)

Obafemi Martins

While anyone with a soccer pulse in the U.S. knows Clint Dempsey, fewer new or casual fans know his strike partner, Obafemi Martins. A finalist for league MVP in 2014, Oba has been just, if not more, valuable than Dempsey. Since coming over to Seattle as a Designated Player, he’s been incredibly prolific. In 2014, he set the club record for goals (17) and tied the club record for assists (13).

It’s hard to say that as Martins goes so do the Sounders because the team is so deep and so good, but last year they were 12-0-0 in games that Nigerian international scored last year. That unbeaten streak was broken this season when Seattle lost against San Jose despite a Martins goal, but the club is 3-1 in 2015 when he scores.

The numbers are impressive, but it’s the way he does it that makes him so difficult to defend. He’s quick, can twirl and weave in and out of defenders and can quickly corral the long ball and move into a striking position. He’s dangerous on his own, but by playing across from Clint Dempsey, he’s given more room to operate, which can expose a defense quickly. Imagine how much more dangerous David Villa would be if he played with Dempsey and you’ve got an idea how what Martins can do (this isn’t to compare Villa and Martins as individual players, but their skill sets and role in the league are similar).

Simply put, he’s going to be a handful for NYC FC. Will some combination of Chris Wingert, Kwame Watson-Siriboe (who has seemed to play better aerially than against Martins-like ground games) and Jason Hernandez be able to contain Martin against moves like these?

Chad Marshall

Dempsey and Martins make the Sounders dangerous offensively, but they’ve got an almost equivalent level of talent in the backline with Chad Marshall. He’s a three-time MLS Defender of the Year, including in 2014 which was his first season with the Sounders after a long run in Columbus.

In Marshall, NYCFC will face a real top-flight defender for only the second time (Matt Besler of SKC). If the Gotham Blues revert back to the long ball game that they played against SKC, they could be dooming themselves to a frustrating evening in the offensive third. Marshall ranks 18th in the league in aerials won (hold this thought for our next player to watch as well) and at 6’3" could easily pick off longballs man for Villa and he’s got a few inches on Patrick Mullins.

A mini chess match to watch is how Kreis shuffles Villa around to free him up from Marshall (assuming he plays). If I’m Kreis, I try to position Nemec (if he plays) for long balls into the central defense area in hopes of freeing up Villa.

Brad Evans

The second half of one of the league’s best central defense pairs (up there with Besler and Opara) is Brad Evans, who’s shifted to the position this season from the midfield. All reports on Evans’ transition to defense have been position and he’s only had one stinker of a game, as noted by Sounder at Heart.

Evans pairs with Marshall to form a backline that can suffocate the NYCFC midfield’s entry passes to the forwards. He ranks 14th in the league in aerials won (which could kill the long ball game) and 19th in clearances (Chad Marshall is second).

HOW THEY’LL BEAT NYCFC

If the Sounders beat NYCFC, it’ll be for a number of reasons. First, the club is flat-out more talented and healthier. Give me Marshall, Evans, Dempsey, Martins and goalkeeper Stefan Frei (who would have been in the Players to Watch section, but he’s not likely to get too much action this game) over an expansion team roster any day.

To win, the Sounders defense will accentuate the troubles the NYCFC midfield and forwards have in connecting. Marshall and Evans will become a black hole for an offense with a less-the-full-strength David Villa.

Once their elite defense clears the ball, the midfield will service the best-in-class forwards, who will give the NYCFC defense fits. Martins could leave the defense spinning with his quick feet and moves while Dempsey excels at cutting inside from the outside and at servicing Martins. The two forwards will test Josh Saunders and likely pop a few past him.

HOW THEY’LL LOSE TO THE BLUES

New York City FC needs to catch some breaks for the Sounders to lose. They need David Villa back and in form and need everyone to have their game of the season.

The one spot on the pitch where NYCFC have a slight advantage is in the midfield. The Seattle midfielders are solid, but not as elite as the defense and forwards. NYCFC have an opportunity to tilt the field in its favor and control the ball in the midfield with Mix Diskerud. If they can hang onto the ball in the middle, they accomplish a few things: they protect the backline by keeping it away from Martins and Dempsey and they also stand a better chance at servicing Villa, Mullins, Shelton, Nemec, whoever’s up top. By controlling the ball closer to the offensive third, NYCFC can use shorter passes and fewer Hail Mary long balls to prevent turnovers to Evans and Marshall.

One intangible to keep in mind that can help NYCFC is the fact the Seattle is crossing three time zones to play and home field. In the club’s MLS history, they’re a pedestrian 6-8-7 in the Eastern Time Zone compared to a 88-46-41 record in all other time zones. Three of those wins have come against Toronto FC and Montreal, for what that’s worth.

PREDICTION

This match has a chance of being ugly. With plus-plus MLS talent up front and in the back, Seattle may simply overwhelm New York City FC.  On top of the talent gap, Seattle is healthy while New York isn’t, so NYCFC may not even field an A lineup capable of stealing a game.

On the bright side, NYCFC has yet to get blown out, so the club’s ability to keep games close, combined with solid goaltending and the travel from Seattle to New York might give them a puncher’s chance.

Let’s call it 2-0 Seattle. Sorry Blues supporters!