kamara1.jpg
Kamara is one of KC's two five-goal scorers.
It's not quite fair to say Sounders FC are desperate for a victory. It's only mid-June, and

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Streaking in the Wrong Direction, Sounders Welcome Back Alonso vs. Sporting KC

kamara1.jpg
Kamara is one of KC's two five-goal scorers.
It's not quite fair to say Sounders FC are desperate for a victory. It's only mid-June, and a five-match winless streak, the club's longest in a single season in more than three years, has dropped them from third place in the Western Conference all the way down to ... fourth.

But finding a path to three points tonight at the Clink against Sporting Kansas City (7 p.m., KONG-TV) would be huge. Even coming away with a single point against the East's second-best team--a real possibility, even if the Sounders play better than they have in four of their past five MLS matches, three of them losses--would be OK. A third consecutive loss at home, for the first time in franchise history? Not so much.

It's not all dire: There's nowhere to go but up after Saturday's 4-1 meltdown in Montreal, and Seattle gets midfielder Ozzie Alonso back from a two-match suspension, plugging into the center of the field a tenacious, ball-winning de facto fifth defender (and brand-new U.S. citizen) who ends opponents' attacks before they have a chance to become dangerous.

And recent history is on Seattle's side: The Sounders have beaten Kansas City teams five straight times, with three of the past four decided by goals in the final minutes.

Last May, Seattle broke a scoreless tie at home as Jeff Parke headed in Tyson Wahl's corner kick in second-half stoppage time, then in August won 2-1--on Rosales' tying goal in the 90th minute and Lamar Neagle's stoppage-time winner (see below)--the first victory for a visiting team at LiveStrong Sporting Park, the best of the league's new wave of soccer-only venues. But this Sporting KC squad is much improved from last season; it's currently hard to say the same about Seattle.

The Sounders have embarked on a grueling stretch of four matches in 11 days, seven in 22, playing at home only twice. It didn't start well four days ago, when a defense that had given up more than one goal just twice in 13 MLS matches was torched for four--the first time since 2010 they'd given up that many in league play, and only the third time ever.

Seattle looked rusty, out of rhythm, like a team coming off a three-week league layoff. Veteran midfielders Alvaro Fernandez and Mauro Rosales were largely ineffective on the left and right, respectively, and came off in the second half in favor of younger legs in rookies Alex Caskey and Cordell Cato.

There's now one less option in midfield, as the Christian Sivebæk era is over before it had a chance to begin. The rangy midfielder went on Twitter last night and confirmed rumors that he was flying back to his native Denmark to undergo a medical exam to play for an unnamed team. The 24-year-old saw 88 minutes in three matches this season, starting once. The emergence of three young midfielders--Caskey, Cato, and Andy Rose--cut into his potential playing time. His international roster spot is now open and could be filled by the Sounders in the summer transfer window.

Eddie Johnson's 61st-minute goal, on a perfectly weighted through ball from Fredy Montero, was the lone bright spot in Montreal for an offense that has sputtered over the past several weeks, totaling four goals in five MLS matches, and now misses the work rate and opportunism of leading scorer David Estrada, out until August at a minimum after breaking his foot in practice last week.

Rookie Bryan Meredith has yielded nine goals in the past four matches, victimized by defensive breakdowns and undone by clinical finishing. After a 275-minute shutout streak to start his MLS career, he's 2-3-2 with a 1.33 goals-against average. When Michael Gspurning's hip gets the green light, the former starter will reclaim his place in goal.

The Sounders' immediate concern is filling the sizable hole that Jhon Kennedy Hurtado's absence leaves in the middle of their defense, after the Colombian veteran received a questionable red card early in the second half in Montreal; he'll miss this match as well. This would be an opportune time for Sigi Schmid to see central defender Patrick Ianni return from a lower-back injury; if Leo Gonzalez is finally past a nagging quad strain and can give Marc Burch a rest on the left side, all the better.

Seattle's three home defeats have followed a common script: Conservative, low-risk play on the visitors' part, going forward with any real conviction only on the counterattack, keeping the home team off the board and the crowd out of the match. A first-half goal (early second-half, for Real Salt Lake) against the run of play, then pack it in on defense. Score again (Columbus) or not (San Jose, RSL), weather the second-half attacks and send 38,000 Rave Green-wearers home dejected, shaking their heads and looking for the nearest pint--or three--of No Equal Amber Lager.

The Sounders have faced five above-average defensive teams at home this year--Houston, San Jose, Philadelphia, RSL, and Columbus--losing to three. None of them are in Sporting Kansas City's league--Major League Soccer's stingiest defense has yielded three fewer goals than Seattle in one less match, with six shutouts among its nine victories.

Tonight's match ultimately may come down to which Sporting Kansas City team shows up: the one that carved a swath through MLS to start the season, winning their first seven matches (five by shutout), or the one that struggled after a streak-snapping loss at Portland in mid-April, dropping three straight before closing out May with a modest two-match unbeaten streak, which they built upon by beating Toronto FC (who doesn't?) on Saturday.

In contrast to Seattle, forced by injuries and suspensions to shuffle bodies in and out of the starting lineup, Sporting KC's back line has been a model of stability: the core four of Aurélien Collin and Matt Besler in the middle and Seth Sinovic and Chance Myers on the wings has started 10 of 13 matches. Collin, a Frenchman who's played all over Europe, has been effective at both ends, getting upfield to lead all MLS defenders with three goals. On the right, Myers is second in the league with four assists--more than any Sounder--and has played every minute of every match, including both U.S. Open Cup contests, despite suffering from asthma. Besler had his appendix out last week, missing his first match on Saturday, but Kenyan Lawrence Olum slid back from the midfield, filled in effectively and likely will start tonight.

It all happens in front of Jimmy Nielsen, Sporting KC's captain and last year's MVP, who has faced just 38 shots on goal in 13 matches. The 34-year-old Dane with the distinctive white 'do boasts a 0.77 goals-against average, first in the league among keepers with at least eight starts. He's also played every minute of every match.

Sporting KC's big offseason shakeup was in the midfield: Captain Davy Arnaud--who had played 10 seasons in Kansas City--was shipped out to Montreal for Sinovic, claimed by the Impact in the expansion draft, and MLS veterans Bobby Convey (San Jose) and Brazilian Paulo Nagamura (Chivas USA) arrived in two other trades. Convey and Nagamura are sidelined by muscle strains, but another Brazilian, Julio César, Honduran Roger Espinoza, and Graham Zusi will make up coach Peter Vermes' three-man midfield--the heart of an unconventional 4-3-3 formation. César, who possesses a thunderous right foot (see below), drops back into a defensive role, while Zuzi--another ironman who is tied for the league lead with eight assists--pushes forward to create for the trio up front.

Striker C.J. Sapong, the 2011 MLS Rookie of the Year, is flanked on the right by Kei Kamara--who started the first dozen matches this year before missing Saturday's contest to play for his native Sierra Leone in a qualifying match for the African Cup of Nations--and on the left by Teal Bunbury, a teammate of injured Sounders midfielder Steve Zakuani at the University of Akron. All three are tall (6-1, 6-3, and 6-2, respectively), strong, fast, adept in the air, and lethal in the box--all 19 of KC's goals this year (one own goal) have been from 12 yards or closer. Kamara and Sapong--each with five goals, including three game-winners--are the main threats in an aggressive formation that puts opposing defenses under stress. Sapong is something of a talisman for this team--he's scored in 11 matches in his two seasons, and Sporting KC has won them all.

This may be the most talented side the Sounders have seen this year--including league-leading Real Salt Lake, East-leading D.C. United, and Mexican club Santos Laguna, which lost the CONCACAF Champions League finals after eliminating Seattle 7-3 on aggregate two rounds earlier.

Sporting KC has played well away from home, with three wins and a draw in six matches. They've triumphed at D.C., Chivas, and Vancouver, where the Sounders could only manage draws, but lost 2-1 at Chicago; Seattle won there by the same score. They've been more vulnerable lately, giving up two goals in each of their past two road matches.

The Sounders have gotten off to slow starts all season--of their 17 goals, 12 have been scored in the second half, just four in the first (with one own goal). For Seattle, scoring at any point has been significant: the team won its first seven matches when it managed at least one goal, although it has a loss and two draws when scoring since then.

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