Let’s take a position-by-position look at both squads, as well some of the storylines heading into the historic match-up of Major League Soccer’s two newest teams.
Philadelphia Union will open their inaugural season and celebrate the start of the 2010 Major League Soccer season on Thursday, March 25 when the club takes on Seattle Sounders FC in front of a sold-out crowd at Qwest Field. The game will be broadcast live on ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes at 9:30 p.m. EST. Qwest Field, also home to the Seattle Seahawks, holds 37,500 fans for soccer events.
The Competition – Seattle Sounders FC
After a highly successful first season in which the Sounders finished the regular season with the fourth most points in the league and advanced to the playoffs, Seattle returns hoping to build upon their MLS attendance record-breaking year. The team is led by former American international goalkeeper Kasey Keller, Swedish playmaker Freddie Ljungberg, and scoring dynamo Fredy Montero.
Goalkeeper – Philadelphia Union
Chris Seitz, 23, is projected to get the nod over Brad Knighton to start the season and it’ll be a chance for the 3-year veteran to live up to his limitless potential. Thought by many to be the heir to the throne for the USMNT, Seitz was developing under the shadow of 2009 MLS Cup MVP Nick Rimando with Real Salt Lake before Philadelphia Union swung a trade for him immediately following the Expansion Draft. Seventeen years younger then the man standing between pipes on the other side of the field, Seitz has every opportunity to prove he’s Philadelphia Union’s ‘keeper of the future. That opportunity starts Thursday night against a creative and fast Seattle attack, but Seitz’s combination of size at 6-3, quickness, instincts and communication skills mean he has all the tools to succeed right from the get-go.
Goalkeeper – Seattle Sounders
An MLS All-Star selection in 2009 and unprecedented three-time U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year, starting goalkeeper Kasey Keller remains one of the elite goalies in the League at age 40. His ability to control the backline and limit dangerous shots prevents him from having to make a large number of tough saves, but he has the ability to do so when needed. With a solid defense in front of him, Philadelphia Union will need to apply consistent pressure in the attacking third in order to start Keller off with more goals against than he accumulated on average in 2009 (0.92).
Defense – Philadelphia Union
The most experienced unit on a very young team (average age of 23.9 amongst the 18 players traveling to Seattle), Philadelphia Union’s defense will have to not only stifle an attack that will be eager to send the home fans into a frenzy, but also distribute the ball quickly to keep Seattle from locking down in Philadelphia’s territory. Centerback Danny Califf is expected to a be a rock in the middle after coming back to MLS from Danish Superliga title contender FC Midtjylland. Alongside Califf will be MLS veteran Shavar Thomas, providing the Union with a pair of tenacious competitors who will look to wreak havoc on anyone in and around the area. With feisty wingbacks Jordan Harvey and Michael Orozco expected to patrol the flanks, and Dave Myrie on the bench with fresh legs, Seattle’s attack will need to avoid early season rust if they want to find the back of the net.
Defense – Seattle Sounders
Led by 2009 MLS All-Star selection Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Team Defender of the Year Tyrone Marshall, both centerbacks, Seattle will look to maintain a strong backline that ended 2009 with a 1.27 GAA. With James Riley out wide to the right and Leo Gonzalez finishing last season starting on the left, goals won’t come easy. But an early strike by the Union would go a long way towards loosening up this steady backline unit.
Midfield – Philadelphia Union
Depth in the midfield should be a strength for Philadelphia Union this year, but the club’s youth will be tested with two projected opening day starters under the age of twenty. 18-year-old Roger Torres will be counted on to provide a spark, especially with Fred serving a one-game suspension carrying over from a red card received in the 92nd minute of D.C. United’s regular season finale against Kansas City last season. His quickness, ball skills and attacking vision should complement the more defensive styles of Amobi Okugo, the 6th overall selection in this year’s SuperDraft, and Stefani Miglioranzi, the elder statesman on the roster. While the club will likely look for a spark off the bench from Toni Stahl, Kyle Nakazawa or Andrew Jacobson, Miglioranzi will need to be a force in the middle and distribute quickly starting from the opening whistle for Union to play effective two-way soccer.
Midfield – Seattle Sounders
Designated Player Freddie Ljungberg’s creativity fuels Seattle’s attack, but he’s not the only talented player roaming Seattle’s midfield. Osvaldo Alonso surprised many in 2009 with his ball-winning and distribution, enabling Ljungberg and Brad Evans to push forward. Ljungberg will look to improve his goal scoring after putting just two away in 2009, but with nine assists in just 22 games it’s clear he doesn’t need to score to be a catalyst for Seattle. Don’t be surprised if this match is won or lost in the midfield.
Attack – Philadelphia Union
Projected front line starters Alejandro Moreno, Sebastien Le Toux and Nick Zimmerman will never lack grit and determination, but the trio’s chemistry remains to be seen having never lined up together in a regular season match. Then again, the same could be same for the entire roster, but so it goes with expansion teams. Despite the uncertainty, Moreno is a proven goal scorer in MLS, Le Toux found success up front in preseason and Nick Zimmerman provided a spark when given the chance with a lowly NY Red Bulls squad last year.
In addition, no team in the league boasts as much attacking talent off the bench, with #1 overall draft pick Danny Mwanga and #7 overall draft pick Jack McInerney eager to make early impressions at the professional level. The question on the minds of many is how soon will the pair develop, but both have shown poise beyond their years and their skills have never been in question. Don’t be shocked if one or both become contributors early in the season, perhaps even against Seattle.
Attack – Seattle Sounders
Seattle’s front line was very impressive last season, led by 2009 MLS Newcomer of the Year Fredy Montero, whose twelve goals and four game-winning goals were both good for third in the League. Montero is joined up top by Nate Jaqua, who tallied nine goals himself to round out the dynamic attacking duo. The pair isn’t afraid to share the love either, accounting for seven assists apiece in 2009. Complementing Jaqua and Montero is last year’s #1 overall SuperDraft selection Steve Zakuani, who led all MLS rookies in goals (4) and assists (4). Zakuani’s speed and dribbling ability often cause problems for opposing defenses, but Orozco is by no means too slow to keep up. Seattle’s attack vs. Philadelphia’s backline may very well be the marquee matchup of the night.
Sebastien Le Toux makes his return to Qwest Field after being picked up by Philadelphia in the 2009 Expansion Draft. Le Toux was the Sounders’ first ever signee last year, and he finished the season with a goal and three assists while often playing in the midfield. A fan favorite, he was first signed by Seattle in 2006 as a USL player and had 24 goals in two seasons.
“I have a lot of respect for all of them on the field,” Le Toux said. “But I want to win the game for Philadelphia Union. I know all of them. They were a part of me from the past. There’s no time to be nice when the game starts. Then it’s time to win the game.”
Two Matches, Two Historic Openers
While the Union will walk into an electric atmosphere on Thursday night (a nicer greeting will be provided by a group of Sons of Ben members traveling to Seattle for the match), Philadelphia fans will have a chance to return the favor later in the year at another historic match. On June 27th, Seattle will make the trip to Chester, PA to play the Union’s PPL Park stadium opener along the Delaware River waterfront.
Both cities have proven to be among the very best for soccer support in the United States, and very little bolsters the sport’s national profile like sold-out matches on national television. That much is a certainty when these two teams face each other this year. The cumulative significance of the two matchups as a reflection of the League’s momentum could very well be unparalleled in MLS history.
It’s Not Easy Being the New Guy…
There have been eight expansion teams since 1998: Chicago Fire and Miami Fusion in 1998, Real Salt Lake in 2005, Chivas USA in 2006, Toronto FC in 2007, San Jose Earthquakes in 2008, Seattle Sounders FC in 2009, and now Philadelphia Union in 2010.
Seattle is only one of two teams to win its first game as an expansion team, the other being Chicago. The Sounders defeated the New York Red Bulls, 3-0, in their debut on March 19, 2009 at Qwest Field.
Unless You’re Peter Nowak
Nowak has experienced unusual success when entering new phases of his playing and coaching career. The only person in League history to have won a MLS Cup as both player and coach, Nowak won a championship as a player with expansion Chicago in 1998 and then repeated the feat six years later as a first-year Head Coach of D.C. United. While that type of success is even more difficult to achieve now that the league is larger and more talented, it’s safe to say that Nowak won’t be intimidated in any environment. With a schedule featuring 8 of the first 10 games on the road, Nowak’s no-nonsense attitude will surely be tested.
Date: Thursday, March 25, 2010
Kickoff: 9:55 p.m. PT (Broadcast begins at 9:30 p.m.)
Location: Xbox Pitch at Qwest Field (27,700; 117 x 72)
National TV: ESPN2, ESPN Deportes
SEATTLE, Wa. - When Philadelphia Union step out on the pitch at Qwest Field on Thursday evening, history will be playing out in front of our eyes. The moment many have been waiting for has arrived after years of anticipation, and the world will be watching. But only one thing matters once the opening whistle blows: securing three points in the standings.
The Beginning of a Season, The Beginning of an Era
Talent: JP Dellacamera (play-by-play), John Harkes (analyst), Allen Hopkins (sideline)