TUKWILA — The matchup is about as good as it gets in MLS at the moment.
Sounders FC versus D.C. United. The top team in the Western Conference (and the overall standings) versus the top team in the Eastern Conference.
Big games have been nothing new to Seattle, a perennial contender soaring into Saturday’s 4 p.m. road game on a record pace in MLS thanks to an 8-1-1 streak. It seems hard to believe D.C. has reached this level so quickly, though, after one of the worst seasons in league history in 2013.
The Black Red went 3-24-7 last season, setting low marks for fewest wins and fewest goals per game (0.65) while finishing second-worst in all-time win percentage (.191). Those fortunes appeared to carry over to this year, when DCU lost its first two games and failed to score, but a 7-2-4 run has resulted in a worst-to-first turnaround.
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Laughingstock no longer.
“They’re in good form right now,” said coach Sigi Schmid. “They’re a team that commands a lot of respect.”
One of the key offseason additions for D.C. was former Sounder Eddie Johnson, who got the designated-player contract he had desired in Seattle (going from about $156,000 to about $613,000). So far his production has been limited to a single goal, but Schmid said the numbers haven’t been reflective of the forward’s impact, and the Sounders players know better than to overlook their ex-teammate.
Johnson’s 23 goals in two seasons in Seattle still rank second in the franchise’s MLS history.
“We know how Eddie is,” said defender Zach Scott. “Eddie is a quality player, and you add in that little motivation playing against a team that you just came from. … He’ll certainly rise to the occasion.”
Johnson, who often visits Seattle since his children live with their mother here, wasn’t made available for interviews this week.
“Eddie’s still a friend of ours and a friend of the club’s,” said Schmid, “and we wish him nothing but the best — except against us.”
Personnel issues will impact both teams heading into the top-of-the-table clash. Seattle is still missing U.S. World Cup stars Clint Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin, and forward Obafemi Martins will be serving his one-game suspension for his controversial red card June 7 in Chicago.
On the other side, D.C.’s leading scorer, Fabian Espindola is out with a knee injury. He was also issued a two-game suspension Friday for violent conduct toward Montreal’s Felipe Martins on June 11.
Another ex-Sounder, Jeff Parke (foot) and forward/midfielder Chris Pontius (hamstring), are also out injured for DCU, while midfielder Davy Arnaud is suspended due to yellow-card accumulation.
An added challenge for the Sounders will be the turnaround and long travel after Tuesday’s Open Cup win in penalty kicks against San Jose.