Cascadia Cup Preview: A Flat Fish Indeed

Osvaldo Alonso brings a lot of quality, and a wee bit of a temper, to the Seattle midfield.

As the derby weekend approaches, Stumptown Footy wants to make sure you're fully informed about our rivals to the north. Tomorrow, Ryan will offer his analysis of what the Portland Timbers need to do to win, and Geoff will follow that up with the usual 3 questions of Sounder At Heart.

But first, we'll give you a rundown of what to expect from these Sounders. Although they currently sit in fourth place, Sounders fans likely aren't totally happy with their team's performance this season. An incredibly strong defensive start helped the team get wins in spite of what has been a weak offense.

But now they're in the midst of a six game winless streak, during which time they have allowed 11 goals and their offensive production has still not improved.

Part of the recent dry spell has resulted from injuries and suspensions. The Seattle midfield in particular has seen key injuries to Mauro Rosales and David Estrada, along with the recent suspension of Osvaldo Alonso that held him out for two games. And now Alvaro Fernandez will be out, serving a suspension following a red card against Sporting Kansas City.

None of these absences have hurt as much as Michael Gspurning's hip injury. With the Schatz aus Graz in goal, the Sounders started the year with an impressive 7-game stretch in which they tallied four cleansheets while allowing only three goals.

2012_2bsounders_2b-_2bwith_2b_2526_2bwithout_2bgspurning-2

Then everything went south. Brian Meredith, Gspurning's first replacement, started with two cleansheets but then proceeded to allow ten goals in his next five MLS matches, including leaking four against Montreal. He was replaced with Andrew Weber for the SKC match last night, but goalkeeping will likely continue to be an uncertainty until Gspurning's return.

In front of Gpurning/Meredith/Weber, some combination of Jeff Parke, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Ianni have started in the central defense in nearly every match, and helped the Sounders to the aforementioned impressive start. Indeed, the Sounders were excelling at more than just goal stopping during that stretch -- they were also limiting shots very effectively.

The last six matches have been a worrying reversal of that trend, as the weaknesses of the Sounders' defensive corps have been exposed. Adam Johansson, the Swedish offseason acquisition at right back, has looked lost at times, particularly when he was matched against Vancouver's Omar Salgado. He has been replaced for much of the year by Zach Scott, while Marc Burch has patrolled the left flank for most of the year. Neither of them is quite enough to strike fear in opposing attackers.

Then again, Portland's wings aren't brimming with an overabundance of confidence to begin with. Moving on...

Midfield

The Sounders, like the Timbers, have struggled to create chances through the middle of the pitch, instead relying on a boat load of of crosses from the wing by Mauro Rosales and Alvaro Fernandez. Eddie Johnson has gotten his head on very few of them, which has been a major reason for the team's goal scoring problems this season.

Against Montreal this ineptitude was on full display. Missing suspended Osvaldo Alonso - who continues to be one of the top defensive midfielders in MLS - Andy Rose and Brad Evans failed to either control the Montreal center midfielders or get anything going on the attack. The result was their embarrassing 4-1 loss.

For yesterday's home draw against Sporting Kansas City's B lineup, Schmid used Mauro Rosales as a center mid instead of his usual spot on the wing. The Rosales/Alonso duo created a far more dynamic attack in the middle of the pitch, but it still failed to produce a goal (the goal came on a set piece). That's thanks to Jair Marrufo's stubborn refusal to call a foul against the violent Roger Espinoza, but the Sounders were also undone by a well coordinated SKC backline that coaxed seven offside calls on the night, four of them from Eddie Johnson.

It will be interesting to see if Rosales and Alonso can team up as well on the narrower pitch at Jeld Wen Field, but it's safe to assume Seattle's earlier reliance on the aerial cross won't make a reappearance on Sunday.

By the way, there is an outside chance that Steve Zakuani could make an appearance (but probably not in the starting lineup). I'd kind of assume they'd let him make his grand re-entrance at the CLink, but there will be plenty of Sounders fans at JWF who would love to welcome him back sooner.

Strikers

Up front, Eddie Johnson and Fredy Montero will likely be Seattle's strikers on Sunday, unless Schmid wants to really rile up the home fans by starting Roger Levesque. Johnson and Montero have not worked out together as well as Seattle fans might have hoped.

Montero waited until May to open his 2012 account, going on to score three more over the next two weeks. He's gone relatively silent again since then, coinciding with the team's current six game winless streak. Part of the problem has been his inability to get his 5'9" frame on the aerial crosses coming in from the wings. With the team focusing more on building from the center of the pitch more recently, he may get some better opportunities.

Of course, Montero's other main contribution to Seattle's attack is his dive. The slightest touch to his back will send him sprawling violently to the ground, and I'm sure that skill will be used to its fullest effectiveness on Sunday afternoon.

Johnson, meanwhile, struggled with injuries early on, but David Estrada's dream start to the season was making him redundant anyway. Since the early going, though, Johnson has been a regular starter and has matched Montero on goals.

His play is somewhat similar to the Kenny Cooper who played for the Timbers last year -- he strays out wide and has confidence with the ball at his feet until he can't figure out what to do with it. Oh, and he's been called offside 17 times already this season, in just 12 appearances, nine starts. Even Opera Man must be frustrated with him.

* * *

All in all, Seattle is a team the Timbers can beat, especially with the Sounders at the end of a three-game week. They are a far cry from the team that finished in second place last year, and the issues they have to work out are piling on faster than they can be dealt with.

So yes, the Timbers can beat them. Stay tuned for Ryan's analysis tomorrow on exactly how they might go about doing that.

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