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Union vs. Sounders preview

Game time: Thursday, 9:30 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN2, ESPN 360

MLS picked a great way to open the 2010 season, with the two most interesting clubs of the year on national TV in the league’s biggest soccer venue.

Philadelphia Union heads into Seattle as a blank slate. They’re the league’s youngest club, and they have all the question marks that expansion teams usually have – and then some. The big debate had been whether they’d play a 3-5-2 or 4-4-2 formation. Now it looks like manager Peter Nowak could roll out a 4-3-3 in their opening match that, in practice, may operate more like a 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1, with two wingers flexed wide, two central defensive midfielders, and an attacking playmaker.

Only two expansion teams have ever won their first match, and the Seattle Sounders are one of them. The Sounders set league attendance records and became just the second Major League Soccer club to finish with a winning record, thanks to some big signings from foreign leagues (Freddie Ljungberg, Fredy Montero and Seattle native Kasey Keller) and some good finds in the expansion draft.

Probable lineups

Philadelphia (4-3-3)

Goalkeeper: Chris Seitz

Defenders: Jordan Harvey, Danny Califf, Shavar Thomas, Michael Orozco

Midfielders: Stefani Miglioranzi, Amobi Okugo, Roger Torres

Forwards: Sebastien Le Toux, Alejandro Moreno, Nick Zimmerman

Seattle (4-4-2)

Goalkeeper: Kasey Keller

Defenders: Leo Gonzalez, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Tyrone Marshall, James Riley

Midfielders: Brad Evans, Peter Vagenas, Osvaldo Alonso, Sanna Nyassi

Forwards: Fredy Montero, Freddie Ljungberg

Injuries and suspensions

Philadelphia: Fred will miss the game due to a one-game suspension. Dave Myrie (right ankle), Amobi Okugo (right knee), Roger Torres (right hamstring), and Sebastien Le Toux (left ankle) all have injuries but are expected to play.

Seattle: James Riley is serving a one-game suspension. Nate Jaqua could miss the game due to injury, as could Taylor Graham, who’s questionable with a hamstring strain. Steve Zakuani and Peter Vagenas are sick but could play.

Match-ups

Union defense vs. Sounders forwards

Watch Montero, a quick and crafty Colombian who scored 12 goals last year, third best in MLS. He’ll have a bull’s eye on his back Thursday, and the Union defenders will have to know where he is at all times. Otherwise, Seattle struggled to score goals at times last year. The club signed Swiss striker Blaise Nkufo to address that, but he won’t join the team till he finishes his season with FC Twente in the Dutch league. Freddie Ljungberg is listed as a probable starter at forward for Thursday, but second year speedster Steve Zakuani could fill in here too, with forward Nate Jaqua likely out with an injury.

On the other side, the Union boast what could be one of MLS’s best back lines, anchored by center back Danny Califf. If Nowak goes with four in the back, Califf and Shavar Thomas will man the center while Jordan Harvey and Michael Orozco cover the outside spots. At the back, Union goalkeeper Chris Seitz will finally get a chance to live up to the hype.

Edge: Philadelphia

Union midfield vs. Sounders midfield

The Union look set to start two teenagers in a three-man midfield, which could make this a long night for their defense. Colombian teenager Roger Torres is tabbed to replace Brazilian playmaker Fred along with rookie Amobi Okugo. Okugo had been expected to join the U.S. U-20 team for the Dallas Cup, but the Union’s official release indicates he’ll be in the starting lineup. Veteran Stefani Miglioranzi will join Okugo as a defensive midfielder.

For Seattle, Ljungberg keys the attack. Midfielders Osvaldo Alonso and Brad Evans proved solid midfield options last season, though more of us probably noticed Evans’ recent nightmare game on defense for the U.S. National Team. Zakuani and Sanna Nyassi will likely join them in the midfield, though Seattle is a team that often juggles players between forward and midfield, so Zakuani and Ljungberg could easily flip. Likewise, if Evans slides back to right back to replace suspended James Riley, Peter Vagenas could start in the midfield.

Edge: Seattle

Union forwards vs. Sounders defense

The Union will likely start Alejandro Moreno and Sebastien Le Toux, a pair of strikers who had five goals between them last year. Moreno is well-known for his ability to draw penalties, while Le Toux has shown some skill but hasn’t shown that he can score at this level yet. The Union’s game notes indicate that Nick Zimmerman will start too, putting the team in a 4-3-3 formation that few expected but in reality may be more like a traditional 4-5-1. Top draft pick Danny Mwanga will likely get some time up top as well, particularly on a three-man line.

Seattle’s defense is led by 2009 all-star Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Tyrone Marshall at center back, with former starting U.S. national team goalkeeper Kasey Keller between the sticks. The Sounders gave up just 29 goals last year, tied for the lowest mark in the regular season, and against a Union offense that struggled to score in the preseason, you could see more of the same Thursday. Patrick Ianni or Zach Scott could start in place of suspended right back James Riley, who was red carded at the end of Seattle’s playoff loss last year.

Edge: Seattle

Individual matchup to watch

Freddie Ljungberg vs. Stefani Miglioranzi

The Union have to contain Ljungberg and not give away any silly free kicks. Miglioranzi is the Union’s elder statesman, and it’s on him and Okugo to slow down the attack before it gets to the back line.

What to expect

We don’t know what to expect, other than there will be a game, and soccer fans here in Philly will celebrate it. On the field, this looked at first like it might be a defensive struggle, with two of the league’s best defenses on display, but a three-man attacking group for the Union changes the dynamics. It could open the midfield more for Seattle and potentially creates more in the attacking third for the Union.

Prediction

Seattle wins 2-1. Expansion teams don’t usually win their first game on the road against one of the favorites to win the league title.  But it’ll be a great game, and fans won’t care if the Union lose. If they win? Party time. Time to call a cab.

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