The Sounders FC are in position to clinch their 11th consecutive postseason berth but will have to it without their anchor in center midfielder Nico Lodeiro and an adjusted backline.
Lodeiro is a late scratch from the starting lineup due to lower back pain. The Uruguayan suffered the injury in the 26th minute of Seattle’s draw against FC Dallas on Wednesday, taking a hit from behind. He completed the match only to realize the pain was too severe to travel for the club’s road game against D.C. United on Sunday.
Kickoff is set for 5 p.m. at Audi Field.
“We don’t think it’s a long-term injury,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said via phone. “He’s a big part of our team. He takes all of our corner kicks and free kicks. But Harry Shipp’s available. Victor Rodriguez is available to play some minutes and I’ve played Joevin Jones at midfield before. Those three guys will be who we draw from. So, we’ll put a decent team out there.”
Lodeiro hasn’t missed a minute of MLS play since July 3 when he was with his national team competing in the Copa America in Brazil. He leads the Sounders with 12 assists.
And the team captain isn’t the only change against D.C. United. What to do with the backline is an ongoing question for Seattle.
Scrambling began with the retirement of Chad Marshall in May. The three-time MLS Defender of the Year was forced to retire because of chronic knee pain. The replacements have been out because of injury or suspension.
The latest is Xavier Arreaga. The Ecuadorian defender was shown two yellow cards in the scoreless draw on Wednesday, subsequently suspending him for Sunday’s match.
Schmetzer spent Saturday’s training scheming how to defend a confident United side. Seattle (14-9-8) is already without veteran center back Roman Torres (suspension) and recent signee Jonathan Campbell (calf strain) at the position.
“It’s a story line of our entire season, we’re up and down a little bit too much for my liking,” Schmetzer said of his team’s defending. “We’ve got three games to go and nothing about this season has been easy. But, not any player, whether they’re a starter or reserve, nobody has shied away from any of the adversity we’ve had. Because of that, to me, I continue to believe this team can do damage in the playoffs.”
Schmetzer will likely call on Saad Abdul-Salaam to replace Arreaga. Three of Salaam’s 11 starts this season were at right center back. The team can also push midfielder Gustav Svensson back.
The change is disappointing because of the chemistry Kim Kee-hee and Arreaga were developing along with goalkeeper Stefan Frei. Schmetzer liked the unity from the lineup that he’s used in the win against the New York Red Bulls last week and the draw against FC Dallas.
“That partnership was getting better,” Schmetzer said. “The more they played together, the more comfortable they felt. We’ll make that correction on the backline.”
D.C. United is on an uptick after three consecutive losses in August. The United had a positive end to its road trip as it defeated Montreal 3-0 and toppled Portland 1-0 at Providence Park last week. A Timbers own goal in the 25th minute proved to be the game winner.
“The Montreal game was big to get out of that summer funk that we were in,” United coach Ben Olsen said in audio provided by MLS. “To piggyback it with a gutsy win against Portland away — two shutouts shows were a pretty good defensive team. Now, can we push the offensive side a little bit and find that balance? That’s the challenge that we face. But it’s nice to know we can be one of the better defensive teams in the league. … There’s an art to defending.”
The Sounders would agree — adding that keeping defenders available is key.
Seattle collected their first shutout since July against Dallas. Previously, the club had conceded 19 goals, including a stretch where it allowed three goals apiece in three straight August games.
The play of late has helped the Sounders’ playoff goals. A Seattle win and FC Dallas loss or tie to New York City FC or Portland loss or tie against Minnesota United are among the scenarios that would lock a slot for Seattle. San Jose’s loss to Atlanta United on Saturday inched the Sounders closer to clinching.
D.C. United (12-10-9) is in a logjam in the middle of the Eastern Conference standings.
“Each one of these games is so critical, so vital, that I’ve got to put a team out there that’s going to challenge for winning,” said Schmetzer, who’ll return forward Jordan Morris and fullback Brad Smith to the starting lineup.
“Watching the standings, watching the rest of the games, being aware of our precarious position, all of that stuff we’re doing,” Schmetzer continued. “I just want the team to play a complete game. That’ll be our objective (Sunday).”