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Sounders FC faces the Fire

The Sounders FC will head to Chicago on Saturday to face the unbeaten Fire in a meeting against the top expansion team in league history.

When talking about MLS expansion teams, the gold standard has always been the Chicago Fire.  In their expansion year of 1998, the Fire won both the MLS Cup and the US Open Cup, becoming the first and only expansion team to win either title and the first team in the league to win the Double.

11 years later, the Sounders are trying to match that first-season success and are in good shape thus far.  With a 4-2-0 record and four shutouts through their first six games, Seattle has shown that they can be competitive in the league  and with a 4-1 win over Real Salt Lake in the US Open Cup play-in game on Tuesday, they are one step closer to the that leg of the Double.

Saturday the two teams will square off at Chicago’s Toyota Park in a meeting of two of the top teams in the MLS.

This year’s Fire have been built for the attack, leading the league with 12 goals.  Led by former US National Team forward Brian McBride, who leads the league with five goals, and dangerous midfielder Cuauthemoc Blanco, Chicago has a wealth of experience in attacking positions.  Add to that 2008 Goalkeeper of the Year Jon Busch and the Sounders have a lot on their plate.

“Obviously, we’d like to continue what we’ve done the last couple of games, which is score goals.  We’ve been a team when we score goals we generally come out on the good side of the equation at the end of the game,” Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid said.  “But they’re a good team.  They’ve got some good talented players.  Last year they were a very good defensive team as well.  We have to be on top of our game to have a chance.”

Key to that will be preventing McBride, who was named MLS Player of the Month for April, from putting Chicago on the board early.  Sounders FC goalkeeper Kasey Keller’s roommate with the US National team and teammate with Fulham in 2007 and 2008, McBride scored in his debut with two English teams against Keller, opening up against Tottenham while on loan with Everton and after he signed with Fulham.  In addition to his successes overseas, McBride also has 72 goals in 178 career MLS games.

“When you’re facing a good center-forward the most important thing is to cut off service because you can’t score goals without service.  So we really concentrate a little bit more on where the ball is coming from,” Schmid said.  “He is obviously a very good target in the air.  So we want to make sure we battle him and we’re aware of where he is in the box.  If he’s open he doesn’t make many mistakes with his head.  So we have to make sure that we’re on him.  But we really got to cut down service is the number one thing.”

Much of that service will likely come from midfielder Cuauhtemoc Blanco.  The Mexican superstar has 12 goals and 20 assists through two seasons in the MLS after an illustrious career spanning 333 games with Club America in Mexico’s Primera Division.

“He’s a butterfly.  He floats around the field.  He finds different spaces, different places.  He doesn’t go anywhere real fast, but he gets to all parts of the field, touches all blades of grass on the field, and the moment you take your eye off of him for a second, he packs up, he’s 15-20 yards away from you,” Schmid said.  “The thing that’s impressed me since he’s been here is I never knew his left foot was as good as it was.  If you get tight to him he knows how to use his body. If you’re after him he’s a good passer of the ball.  So he’s a player that makes them more dangerous because he see’s those things.  He’s insightful.”

Chicago has started the season an unbeaten 2-0-4, and fell to Club America 2-1 on Wednesday.  Seattle, meanwhile has allowed only three goals through the first six MLS games and has gone 4-2-0.  Behind Keller’s solid net presence the Sounders have four shutouts in six games and are second in the league in goal differential.

Kickoff is set for 4 pm and the game will be broadcast on KONG television and on 97.3 KIRO radio.

NOTES: Freddie Ljungberg was expected to return to Seattle to train with fitness coach Dave Tenney on Thursday.  He has been away from the team in Sweden since Sunday while attending the services for his late grandmother, who passed away earlier this month. … Former A-League Sounder, UW product and Renton native Brandon Prideaux is in his second year with the Fire and 11th in the MLS.  He has appeared in two games, one as a starter and one off the bench, for Chicago this year.