On the road Image

Sounders ready for tough final stretch

Seattle will take to the road for eight of their final 12 league matches.

The Sounders FC has reached another fork in the road to their inaugural season.  After a seemingly tame month of July that saw them play only two league games, the Sounders will embark on a stretch with four of their next five regular season games on the road.

But their July schedule can be deceiving.  Though their two league matches made their schedule look light, the US Open Cup and a friendly against Chelsea bulked up that total to six games, including a 120-minute marathon in the Open Cup semifinals against the Houston Dynamo.

The club went unbeaten in league and cup play – a streak that extends back nine games to a 1-0 loss to Chivas USA on June 6.

But August will test their mettle on a road stretch that will see them travel 5,163 miles (according to Mapquest.com) over four road games.  Mixed in are home matches against the New England Revolution and Toronto FC and a friendly against FC Barcelona.

“We knew we had this good home run and we needed to put together a good run.  We’re on a good run of form with the Cup and the league.  Now we have to continue that on the road,” said goalkeeper Kasey Keller, who will play in the MLS All-Star game Wednesday at Real Salt Lake’s Rio Tinto Stadium.  “We’ve picked up points on the road, but not quite as many wins as we felt we’ve deserved.  This is going to be the test these next three games.  If we truly want to be contenders in winning our division than we have to pick up a few more wins on the road.”

The Sounders are just 1-2-4 on the road, with both road losses coming to Chivas USA.  But when they take the field Sunday against the San Jose Earthquakes it will have been 42 days since their last league road game.  In that time, they have seen some great change in their successes on the field.  Evidence of that comes in the name of Cuauhtemoc Blanco.  In Seattle’s first meeting against the Chicago Fire and their playmaking midfielder May 2, Blanco had his way with the Seattle defense and Seattle was lucky to escape Toyota Park with a 1-1 draw.  On Saturday, Seattle held Blanco at bay in their 0-0 draw at Qwest Field.  The results may have been the same, but the play looked much different on the field.

The forward combination of Fredy Montero and Nate Jaqua has also made great strides.  Montero and Jaqua are among the top-scoring duos in the league with nine goals, six assists and six goals, six assists, respectively.

“We feel like we’ve improved and we’re understanding each other better,” Jaqua said, adding in the combinations with midfielders Freddie Ljungberg, Steve Zakuani and the like.  “At the beginning of the year we were really good defensively and I think we’re starting to pick up some of that offensively.”

What makes Seattle’s solid play even more impressive is that they have done it with an inconsistent lineup.  They have continued their winning ways with midfield catalyst Brad Evans out of the lineup while with the US National Team in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, veteran defender Tyrone Marshall off with the Jamaican National Team in the same tournament and midfielder Osvaldo Alonso away for injury.  18 games into the season, only Sebastien Le Toux has seen action in each of Seattle’s games.  And while Seattle has had their depth tested, they have continued to respond with positive results.

“We’re solid.  When there’s been a few changes with injuries, someone has stepped in and done a nice job,” Keller said.  “What’s nice is that we can mix things up a little bit.  We’re going be getting Brad Evans back soon and that will help.  We have a squad that’s capable of competing and we’re not dependent on a couple of people.”

The Sounders will only add to that internal competition with the addition of Costa Rican defender Leo Gonzalez, who will join the team soon, after he returned to Costa Rica to receive his work visa and international clearance.

His addition will be of great help over the final 12 games of the regular season, with eight of those games on the road.

He will join a group that has four players – Keller, Montero, Ljungberg and defender Jhon Kennedy Hurtado – in this week’s All-Star game, and several more who could make solid arguments for inclusion.

“You’re talking about 18-20 guys on an All-Star team and we’ve got four of them from a first year team,” Keller said. “But we’ve said all along, we’re not your typical first-year team.  When you come, you still have to perform and we’ve brought in guys that have been able to perform.”

And perform they have.  The Sounders enter the All-Star break at second in the Western Conference at 7-3-8, just three points behind conference-leading Houston.

The Sounders will kick off their busy month of August on the road against San Jose Sunday.  The noon start will be televised on KONG, with KIRO 97.3 FM providing the radio broadcast.