Seattle, LA weigh options before tests
The four Major League Soccer sides involved in CONCACAF Champions League play this week must weigh their priorities as the domestic and international concerns accumulate and the stakes increase on both fronts.
It isn't an easy road to navigate. Houston, Los Angeles, Real Salt Lake and Seattle harbor ambitions to conquer every task ahead of them, but the travails in one competition may impact their efforts in the other. Such concerns often lead MLS coaches to employ squad rotation in CONCACAF Champions Legue play and hope a comparatively weakened starting XI finds a way to churn out the necessary results to ensure international progress.
For Los Angeles and Seattle, this week presents the perfect opportunity to eradicate those concerns entirely with another professional performance and a third consecutive victory in group play. The reward of a relatively meaningless CONCACAF Champions League fixture during the final week of the MLS regular season should offer ample motivation to take care of the business at hand. Houston and Real Salt Lake do not enjoy that luxury at this point, but they must still find a way to produce the necessary results without unduly affecting their domestic efforts at the sharp end of the MLS campaign.
Real Salt Lake kicked off those pursuits with a victorious visit to Tauro FC in Panama City on Tuesday night, but this week's preview focuses on the fixtures ahead on Wednesday and Thursday:
Puerto Rico Islanders vs. Los Angeles Galaxy (Wednesday, 8:00 p.m. ET, FOX Soccer)
Galaxy coach Bruce Arena may once again turn to his young guns to claim a third victory in three attempts and all but clinch a place in the knockout stages with a match to spare.
Arena has good reason to trust his reserves in this fixture after the Galaxy swept aside the NASL side 4-0 at the Home Depot Center on Aug. 29. Jack McBean, Tommy Meyer, Michael Stephens and Jose Villarreal breached the score sheet as the Galaxy displayed the gulf between the sides with a ruthless victory on home soil.
A similar feat in Bayamón appears on the cards given the likely inclusion of the recovering Edson Buddle in the Galaxy starting lineup and Puerto Rico's suspect form in the second division since the two sides last met. Adrian Whitbread's side has won just one of its past four games to fall six points off the pace established by current leaders San Antonio.
As the previous match between the two teams suggested, this Islanders group isn't as strong as the outfit Colin Clarke directed to the semifinals in the 2008-2009 edition of this tournament. Some of the key figures like Nicolas Addlery and Noah Delgado remain in the mix, but this is a different team with different capabilities. The veterans will have to help their teammates conjure up a reminder of the Islanders' previous exploits to disrupt the Galaxy's clear path to the top of Group 5 and preserve their CONCACAF Champions Legaue future with the required victory.
C.D. Marathón vs. Seattle (Wednesday, 10:00p.m. ET, FOX Soccer)
The incentive to procure a victory in this difficult trip to Honduras remains crystal clear: a victory in this fixture will mathematically seal a berth in the quarterfinals and pave the way for a run-in dedicated to climbing the Western Conference table.
Seattle could use the dead fixture in return leg at CenturyLink Field on Oct. 24 to aid its quest for one of the top three spots out West, but it won't be easy at San Pedro Sula. This is a trip fraught with potential complications for a group trying to maintain its push on the domestic and international fronts. Sounders coach Sigi Schmid must weigh his options carefully as he continues to rely on the depth of his squad to carry him through ahead of a critical league fixture against San Jose on Saturday.
Schmid will likely name Eddie Johnson in his starting XI as he tries to take advantage of Marathón's poor domestic form. The usual title contenders currently sit joint bottom of the Honduran table after collecting eight points from the first nine matches. A leaky rearguard (16 goals conceded, the worst mark in the league) offers the most significant cause for concern ahead of Seattle's visit.
Unless Marathón can lean on veteran Honduran international Mauricio Sabillón to shore up those problems before Seattle takes the field, the home side faces a monumental task to keep out the Sounders' prolific attack and sustain its CCL dreams for another week. Not even the travel issues Seattle encountered en route to Honduras should impair the process of grabbing a result here and, perhaps, sealing a berth in the knockout stage.
Houston Dynamo vs. C.D. FAS (Thursday, 8:00p.m., FOX Soccer)
All of the hard work accomplished in the 1-1 draw against Olimpia in Tegucigalpa, Honduras on Aug. 30 will go to waste if the Dynamo cannot extract three points from this visit by the Salvadoran side.
The first meeting – a 3-1 Dynamo victory in San Salvador on Aug. 22 – revealed the gulf in class between the two clubs. Houston coach Dominic Kinnear opted to hand his reserves the responsibility of obtaining a result due to domestic concerns and they responded with an effective and efficient performance.
Houston exposed FAS's vulnerabilities at the back with a steady diet of crosses and set pieces. It should come as little surprise that the Dynamo will likely return to many of those same players (minus the suspended Nathan Sturgis) and those robust tactics to take advantage of a visiting side that does not possess the physical strength at the back to cope with the approach.
If Salvadoran domestic play provides any reliable indication, then FAS may falter in its quest to overcome the problems posed by the Dynamo at BBVA Compass Stadium. One win in the previous four league attempts leaves FAS mired in mid-table and mirrors the concerns already encountered in this competition. Alejandro Bentos, Emerson Reis (the lone goalscorer in the first match between the sides) and Ricardo Ulloa could combine to test the Dynamo defense, but this match should permit Kinnear to rest his starters once again without endangering the importance of the decisive Group 3 encounter against Olimpia on Oct. 23.