Freddy Adu, meet Jhon Kennedy Hurtado.
In Major League Soccer's pecking order, Philadelphia is nowhere near as good a team as Los Angeles, but there's reason to believe that tomorrow's match against the Union (1:30 p.m., NBC Sports Network; if you don't have cable, good luck), the second home contest in four days, will be a greater test for Sounders FC than Wednesday's 2-0 victory over the Galaxy.
Freddy Adu, meet Jhon Kennedy Hurtado.
When the Sounders acquired Johnson, a seasoned veteran with seven MLS campaigns under his belt, in a trade with Montreal in March, they were envisioning a 1-2 punch up front unrivaled in the league; that now seems to be developing into a reality.
Johnson's 40th-minute snap header from in front of the L.A. goal was made possible by Mauro Rosales' perfectly placed cross. Montero, who had been denied twice from close range by Galaxy keeper Bill Gaudette in the first half, did it all by himself three minutes into the second, driving into an open area, then rocketing a rising drive from 35 yards out into the upper right corner that gave Gaudette no chance; it'll take a supreme effort in the week's final eight matches to keep it from becoming MLS Goal of the Week.
The other major development was less heartening, as starting keeper Michael Gspurning, who had played every minute of every match this season, aggravated an ongoing muscle injury in his right hip in the first half and was replaced by 22-year-old backup Bryan Meredith, who saw his first MLS action, for the second. Meredith was hardly tested, stopping the single shot on goal he faced (it was also L.A.'s lone shot on goal), and the Sounders seem confident in his ability to replace Gspurning, at least in the short term. He'll have to; the team announced Friday that Gspurning would be sidelined for two to three weeks. Third-string keeper Andrew Weber, who has been nursing a sprained left ankle, was cleared to play and will back up Meredith. Weber has limited MLS experience, starting two matches for San Jose in 2009 and winning one.
With Seattle playing so well on defense, no matter who makes up the back four, Gspurning's injury is less of an issue. The shutout was the Sounders' fourth of the young season, and they're giving up a minuscule 0.43 goals per match, second only to Kansas City's 0.38. Defenders Patrick Ianni and Adam Johansson, who have been nursing lower back and hamstring injuries respectively, should be able to return tomorrow, but with Jeff Parke in the center and Zach Scott on the right at the top of their games right now, there may not be a place for them in the starting lineup.
Another injured player set to return is midfielder Alvaro Fernandez, whose place on the left has been ably filled by David Estrada the past two weeks. The bottom line: finding enough playing time for everyone is a good problem for Sigi Schmid to have.
Philadelphia, still trying to find its footing in its third MLS season, arrives with an unimposing 2-4-1 record compiled against a far-from-daunting schedule, an anemic offense--just five goals in seven matches--and a slightly-better-than-average defense anchored by the team's most indispensable player, veteran center back Danny Califf.
The Union, coming off two hard-fought, emotional matches, including a heartbreaking 2-1 home loss to San Jose--the only team to beat Seattle--also arrive minus coach Peter Nowak, suspended by the league for one match after rushing onto the pitch and inserting himself into a melee two weeks ago in the waning minutes of a 1-0 win at Chivas USA.
Can't envision Sigi doing that.
The Union surprised the Sounders 2-0 here last October, but it's hard to see how this side scores more than one goal against the Sounders' smothering back four (five if you count Osvaldo Alonso), and even that surely won't come easy.
The only reliable scoring threat has been midfielder Gabriel Gómez, who leads Philly with three goals. Freddy Adu, who plays alongside Gomez on the left, is still only 22 despite nine seasons as a professional--including six MLS campaigns and time in France, Portugal, Greece (where he was Eddie Johnson's teammate with Aris Thessaloniki) and Turkey--but has yet to realize his enormous potential on a consistent basis.
January 31, 2010: Eddie Johnson scores off Freddy Adu's assist in Aris' 2-1 loss to Skoda Xanthi in the Greek Superleague. The keeper? Michael Gspurning!
The collateral damage from the Chivas match, a overly physical battle which teetered on the verge of all-out war in the late going and saw the Union finish with just nine men on the field, included Nowak (who will be replaced by assistant John Hackworth) and starting left back Gabriel Farfan, suspended for two matches after a reckless, two-footed challenge on Chivas counterpart James Riley, a former Sounder, in front of the Philadelphia bench that drew the Union's second red card and precipitated the brawl.
The Union also will present the Sounders with a different scheme. After playing the season's first four matches in a conventional 4-4-2 that yielded just two goals, they've switched to a 4-5-1 formation, with Colombian striker Lionard Pajoy alone up top, backed by a quintet of midfielders, and have three goals in as many matches since the change.
Some reflections on the victory over the Galaxy:
In the run-up to the match, Sounders legends from two generations--Kasey Keller and Alan Hinton--and Seattle U coach Pete Fewing deserved a collective yellow card for accusing Galaxy coach Bruce Arena of "arrogance" in leaving David Beckham and Robbie Keane back in L.A.
It's not that Arena isn't arrogant--and dismissive, to boot. I've sat through one of his press conferences.
But this was a purely strategic move on his part, and likely will turn out to have been a smart one. Arena made a conscious decision that this match meant less--it simply wasn't as winnable--as tomorrow's contest in L.A. against New York, as Beckham and Keane return; Mike Magee and Edson Buddle start, rather than come on as after-the-fact substitutes; and the Red Bulls reel from the absence of the league's leading scorer, Thierry Henry, out at least a month with an injured hamstring.
The Sounders and Galaxy are in the same place schedule-wise, with three matches in eight days, two at home, part of a breakneck five in 15 days for Seattle. The difference is that the Sounders have the quality depth to deal with this kind of demanding stretch. Arena doesn't, and he has to rest his older players so they still have something left when the matches really matter. His actions two days ago were consistent with the way he handled Beckham in similar situations last year.
The lineup he sent out there on Wednesday was inferior, especially for a Galaxy side known for its glitter. There was firepower, creativity and skill in Landon Donovan, but only one quality defender in center back A.J. DeLaGarza, who's actually more suited to the outside. Elsewhere in the back four, Bryan Gaul made his MLS debut on the left, Bryan Jordan his first appearance of the season on the right. The other decent defender, right back Sean Franklin, was playing out of place in midfield.
Up front, Chad Bennett and Adam Cristman--who made his first start of the season--are journeymen at best, and back in midfield, Juninho's production doesn't reflect his talent. Not that L.A.'s young players won't be good someday; they just aren't right now. If Gaudette hadn't stood on his head in the first half, it could have gotten ugly for the Galaxy.
As for Beckham, he's not the player he once was, but even at 37, he still has a specific (if diminishing) skill set that can make an impact on a match, especially in MLS. Although he won't represent England in Euro 2012 this summer, he remains in contention for a place on the first British Olympic team since 1960.
Beckham hates playing on artificial turf and has never played for a team that does, and at this point in his career only has so much left in his legs. If this match had really mattered--if it was October, rather than May--he'd have played, and he'll certainly take the pitch against the Sounders in the regular-season finale in L.A., assuming he's healthy and three points actually matters. The same goes for Keane.
That's when you'll see a very different Galaxy team--especially if Omar Gonzalez, a 6-foot-5 terminator in central defense who's rehabbing an ACL he tore in January, can make it back healthy in a few months and establish himself, and if starting keeper Josh Saunders can conquer his inner demons and return to the form he displayed last season.
The Sounders now have a six-point edge on L.A. in the standings, despite having played one fewer match, and an important head-to-head victory, their first over the Galaxy since 2009. Yes, the guard is clearly changing in the West, but it's far too early to count out an team loaded with offensive talent, led by a canny coach with 131 MLS victories and a record three MLS Cups to his credit.