You guys! It’s almost here! The first leg of the Western Conference Finals! Sure, the Colorado Rapids have to go up and play the Seattle Sounders on turf, but then we get to come back and defend an unbeaten record at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Both teams have had some injuries (though I believe most if not all of their players will be back for the game), and both teams have had some players out on international duty, but I talked with Dave Clark from Sounder at Heart to learn more about what we can expect.
Burgundy Wave: If the Rapids can shut down Nicolas Lodeiro, what other offensive weapons should they worry about?
Sounder at Heart: Number one is Jordan Morris. His health status is your next question, so let's focus on his play on the field. His 12 goals and 4 assists (tied for 3rd on the team) in the regular season was the offense, particularly pre-Lodeiro. While he only has one assist in the playoffs so far, it was a good example of how he assists others. Jordan's key passes usually come when he's cutting towards goal forcing the defense to collapse. He will then slip a ball across or drop it back to a Lodeiro or Valdez.
Nelson Haedo Valdez is that other attacking option. The Paraguayan showed up in the playoffs. With three goals (two game winners) the once non-scoring forward forced his way back into the starting lineup. He is a solid header of the ball, uses hold-up play well and is strong defensively. Now that he is providing support in the box score Valdez could be starting even if everyone is fully healthy. Joevin Jones has been his key provider. Jones, playing with a broken toe, is the type of left back that gets forward as often as possible. When he uses low crosses he can find a Morris, Valdez, Lodeiro and maybe create something.
There are a handful of possible contributors, but none were effective on the full season or in the playoffs. They could provide some danger, but Seattle cannot count on them notching an assist or scoring.
BW: Considering that Jordan Morris missed the USMNT match with a hamstring injury but had a couple weeks to recover, what role do you expect him to play in the first leg?
SaH: Of all the injuries plaguing the Sounders entering leg one this is the one with the greatest impact, and the least knowable. Whereas Ivanschitz, Fernandez, Evans and Torres all look quite likely to play the status of Jordan is less firm. At best he's 50/50. The good news is the injury was minor enough he was called up to U.S. training to verify the extent. He traveled to Columbus and back after it was confirmed that he wouldn't be able to play against Mexico and Costa Rica. He was also part of a promotional event at the Seahawks game on Sunday. At this point my best guess is that he starts, but is pulled if the Sounders get a lead in the second half.
BW: In a recent article on Sounder at Heart, you said that one of the routes to success for the Sounders was set piece goals. Given that the Rapids defend set pieces extraordinarily well, have the Sounders had success against other teams with stout defenses, like LA for example? What is it about the Sounders in particular that you think will give them the success that other teams haven't had against the Rapids?
SaH: The argument is not that Colorado is easily beaten via dead ball play. It's more that under Brian Schmetzer the Sounders just Sounder. They do what they do well, attempting to force other teams to react to their play rather than reacting to the opponent. Sure, the Sounders could try to convert to a team that uses heavy wing play, but that isn't who they are. Who they are is - Morris, possession and set-pieces. Their set-piece success comes from service via Andreas Ivanschitz and Nicolas Lodeiro. Their targets are quite varied - Chad Marshall, Roman Torres, Brad Evans and Nelson Haedo Valdez.
Looking at games against "good" set-piece defensive teams (LA, Colorado, Dallas, RBNY) the Sounders only scored three set-piece goals (two if you ignore a Van Damme own goal on a corner). The other two came against Dallas. One was a header on an indirect kick from Ivanschitz to Roldan and the other was a direct kick by Lodeiro. Seattle can score against this quality of team. It will not be their primary route to attack, but it is not one that they should ignore.
Projected Lineup: Stefan Frei; Joevin Jones, Chad Marshall, Roman Torres, Tyrone Mears; Osvaldo Alonso, Cristian Roldan; Jordan Morris, Nicolas Lodeiro, Brad Evans; Nelson Haedo Valdez
Read my answers to their questions over on Sounder at Heart.