It’s early in the season, but already the meeting Saturday between the Seattle Sounders FC and Chivas USA is drawing the attention of the MLS nation. With Chivas USA (3-0-1, 10 points) leading the Sounders FC (3-1-0, 9 points) by just one point in the standings, the game at the Home Depot Center pits the top two teams in the Western Conference standings.
Both teams have risen to the top of the league with remarkable defense. Seattle started the year with 350 consecutive minutes of scoreless defense before allowing their only score of the season in a 1-0 loss to the Kansas City Wizards last week. Chivas, meanwhile, has allowed only two goals and are coming off of a scoreless draw with the LA Galaxy.
Like Seattle, the LA-based club is built strong up the middle, starting with veteran goalkeeper Zach Thornton.
“They’re a good team that has a lot of talented players,” Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid said. “It’s a group that’s been together for a while now, the nucleus down the middle.”
Part of that nucleus will miss the game, as midfielder Paulo Nagamura was sent off after receiving two yellow cards in the SuperClassico matchup last week. Seattle experienced a similar fate in losing goalkeeper and captain Kasey Keller to a red-card ejection against the Wizards.
Who will replace Keller is as yet unknown, as Schmid wouldn’t name his starter on Thursday.
“You guys have talked to our keepers more than my goalkeeper coach and I have since the end of practice. You tell me, who have we settled on?” Schmid joked with reporters after training Thursday.
Either way, Seattle will be playing in front of a keeper making their first MLS start.
Chris Eylander spent the last three seasons starting for the Sounders in the USL, earning a USL First Division title in 2007. He is signed as Keller’s backup, but has not appeared on the game roster yet because of a knee injury he suffered in the week leading up to the season opener. He started Seattle’s reserve game on Monday for his first action of the season and has completed two full weeks of training.
Ben Dragavon, an MLS pool player, came on for the Sounders after Keller’s 29th minute ejection and held off the Wizards until a cracker from Davy Arnaud in the 80th minute. He played in only four games over the previous two seasons while backing up Eylander but long received high praise from Sounders FC assistants Brian Schmetzer and Tom Dutra, who coached him in the USL.
While both have much less experience than Keller, the task for the defense remains the same.
“With Keller, he’s world class back there. With Eylander and Dragavon training with him for this amount of time, they’ve been learning different things and they’ve been able to observe games,” defender James Riley said. “We’ll play it like it’s normal. We don’t want to let up any easy chances. But it’s the same thing with Kasey, so the mindset will be the same.”
Offensively, Seattle will continue to look to Freddie Ljungberg to control the midfield and Fredy Montero to provide fireworks up front. However, Chivas USA’s physical style will look to neutralize the creative play of Ljungberg and Montero.
“They usually are close to the league lead in fouls,” Schmid said. “They’re not afraid to stop a build-up – I don’t know if it’s a tactical plan on their part – but certainly they’re not afraid to take the odd foul in midfield to slow down a team’s counter-attack or a team’s ability to get forward quickly.”
Aside from Keller, Seattle should have their full complement of starters, while Chivas will play without seven regulars because of injury or suspension.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 and the game can be seen on KING 5 television.
NOTES: Chivas USA head coach Preki spent part of his Hall of Fame career with the Tacoma Stars in the Major Indoor Soccer League. … Chivas forward Maykel Galindo who spent 2005 and 2006 with the Sounders in the USL, is doubtful to face Seattle. He missed most of last season because of sports hernias and has struggled with the injury again early this season. … Though the two teams have never met, officially, the USL Sounders played against Chivas USA four times, with a 2-2-0 record. In their most recent meeting last year, Eylander led the Sounders to a 2-0 shutout in the US Open Cup. Defender Taylor Graham and midfielder Sebastien Le Toux scored Seattle’s two goals in the win. Both of Seattle’s wins came in the US Open Cup, while Chivas won both friendly games.