Falling Stars

The Sounders FC will face FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake this week, but it will provide a much different matchup than the schedule-makers originally imagined.

This had the makings of a tremendous seven days in Major League Soccer.  When the league schedule was released, it was an opportunity to see three of the league’s top creative attacking players in a bit of a round-robin format in the middle of the season.  And while no extra points would be given and no trophy awarded, it could have been a great moment for MLS and soccer in America.

Instead, Steve Zakuani, David Ferreira and Javier Morales are forced to watch as their teams duke it out to separate their clubs in the table.

FC Dallas, without David Ferreira, hosted Real Salt Lake, sans Javier Morales, on Sunday at Pizza Hut Park.  Wednesday, Dallas will travel to Seattle to face the Sounders FC, who are missing Steve Zakuani.  Finally, the Sounders and RSL will square off at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday.

Ferreira was the league’s Most Valuable Player with 8 goals and 13 assists in 2010 and had burst onto the scene as an offensive force in his second MLS season.  He suffered a fractured right ankle on April 23 against the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Morales led Real Salt Lake to the MLS Cup in 2009 and sandwiched that season with years of 6 goals and 15 assists in 2008 and 7 goals and 9 assists in 2010, all the while helping Real Salt Lake reach the CONCACAF Gold Cup final, where they fell to Mexico’s Monterrey.  A broken fibula and torn ankle ligaments suffered when he was recklessly tackled May 7 against Chivas USA.

All three had hot starts in 2011 too.  Through his first five matches, Zakuani had 2 goals and 2 assists.  Ferreira had 3 goals and an assist in his first five games.  And Morales had 2 goals and 2 assists in four matches.

All three players will miss most, if not all, of the 2011 season and it is unclear just how much of their original form they will be able to recover.

In many leagues around the world, a loss of a player of that caliber can at times be counterbalanced by a new acquisition that can help to fill the void.  However, that is not the world of Major League Soccer with its salary cap restrictions.

“It’s always tricky when that kind of stuff and you lose key players in your squad.  Especially in MLS because you don’t have the cap space to go have somebody else to step in,” Sounders FC goalkeeper Kasey Keller said.

However, all three teams have been able to move on from the loss of their dynamic midfielders.

For Dallas, it has meant a change in formation from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 with a much more defensive focus for a team that had allowed eight goals over their first five matches.  Since then, they have allowed just two goals in six matches, including four straight without allowing a goal.

Real Salt Lake, meanwhile, has stayed in a 4-4-2 formation, but they are doing so without their primary playmaker.

“It doesn’t really change their formation, because they don’t have wingers.  They’ve really got four midfielders in there and they’ve lost their attacking one,” Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid said.  “Salt Lake’s playing the same way, they’re just missing an important element of their team.”

The Sounders are also missing O’Brian White after the forward underwent surgery to remove a blood clot in his leg, but could have the midfield trio of Mauro Rosales, Erik Friberg and Brad Evans available for selection after each suffered injuries that have limited their playing time of late.

“For us, it’s about ourselves more than anything,” Keller said.  “We’ve lost players, we’ve got guys coming back and we’re getting guys fit.  How fit are we in these short weeks?  We have a great squad so we know we can make changes, but at the same time you want to keep that continuity as well.  Whichever way Sigi is going to go, I’m sure we’ll be ready to go.”

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