Sounders FC fans jonesing for a footy fix over the next nine days are left with the prospect of rooting against Real Salt Lake and San Jose, the two teams ahead of Seattle in the Western Conference standings, as well as FC Dallas, tied with the Sounders, and staggering Portland (just on principle).
Zach Scott can score, too.
To this point, the Sounders' Major League Soccer season has been a stroll--a leisurely five matches, four at home, with three wins, two goals yielded, over the course of one month.
That's about to change in a dramatic way, as the schedule shifts into overdrive starting April 28 at Chicago. Over a 29-day span, the Sounders play eight times--five in the first 15 days--with half the matches at home, two against the side that was supposed to be the West's best (Los Angeles) and the one that has been (Real Salt Lake). Columbus, Sigi Schmid's previous employer, visits as well. On the road, there are Western Conference clashes with FC Dallas and Chivas USA, and a Cascadia Cup match against much-improved Vancouver, out for revenge after Seattle's emotional, Cup-clinching 3-1 victory last September in B.C.
A defense that has surrendered just one goal in the flow of play (an MLS Goal of the Week, off the foot of Toronto's Ryan Johnson) will be tested by some of the league's top offensive talent--L.A.'s Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle, Dallas' Blas Pérez and Ricardo Villar, Real Salt Lake's Fabian Espíndola and Álvaro Saborío, Chicago's Dominic Oduro, Philadelphia's Gabriel Gómez, and Vancouver's Sébastien LeToux and Eric Hassli.
And a sputtering offense that finally snapped a 305-minute scoreless streak on Zach Scott's 63rd-minute header against Colorado faces four of the league's better defenses in Chicago, Real Salt Lake, Vancouver, and Chivas.
In truth, the first major hiatus of the season (the Sounders have a three-week break between matches May 26 and June 16) comes at a perfect time for this team, which has seen six front-line players sidelined by injuries through the season's first month and has started a league-high 19 players through the first five matches.
The defense's stingy performance is even more remarkable, given that seven players have started at least two matches in the back four. On the right, Scott has been heroic in relief of the injured Adam Johansson, and Patrick Ianni has covered for Jhon Kennedy Hurtado's absence in the center. First-year goalkeeper Michael Gspurning has barely been troubled, with opponents averaging just three shots on goal. When Gspurning has been challenged, his 6-foot-5 frame and calculated aggressiveness have proved nearly impenetrable.
Eight players have started in the midfield, with Osvaldo Alonso the lone constant in the center, tracking back to become a de facto fifth defender and ending opponents' surges downfield before they become dangerous. It's no coincidence that his one subpar effort, against San Jose, was the Sounders' lone loss. Rookie Alex Caskey proved just how deep this group is against Colorado, getting his first MLS start on the left for the injured Alvaro Fernandez and turning in a solid 75 minutes, including the corner kick to the near post that Scott redirected for the lone score.
But the key absence--and the catalyst for the Sounders' attack--has been Argentine midfielder Mauro Rosales, who went down with a sprained right knee late in the opener. His ability to attack defenses and find open spaces, to anticipate and create, has been missing in an offense often lacking flair and imagination, and his probable return against Chicago would put pressure on a Fire defense that has yielded only four goals in as many matches.