On Tuesday night at CenturyLink Field, the Seattle Sounders will host the Colorado Rapids in one of the most highly anticipated fixtures in the history of either club. Seattle, who have never won an MLS Cup in their time in the United States' top flight, looked as though they would miss out on the playoffs for large swathes of the season only to surge in the second half of the year and squeak in. Meanwhile, Colorado ran FC Dallas close all year in the race for the Supporters' Shield, but were unable to catch the Toros. In spite of each side's trials and tribulations over the course of the regular season, one of them will find themselves representing the Western Conference in the 2016 MLS Cup Final.
This is set up to be an immensely even tie, one in which each side's greatest strength runs up against that of their opposition. Colorado pride themselves on their defense while Seattle's attack has been in full flow since Brian Schmetzer found himself manning the ship. As the attack goes, so go the Sounders, as Dallas found out to devastating effect in the Western Conference Semifinal. In order for one team to move on, someone will need to find a way through the other's strength. What should we be watching for in the first leg?
1.) Nicolas Lodeiro vs Shkelzen Gashi
While the firing of Sigi Schmid was the moment that things turned around in Seattle, the man who changed their attack in the second half of the year was Nicolas Lodeiro. The Uruguyan, bought from Boca Juniors during the summer transfer window, has only played 13 games for the Rave Green but managed to win MLS Newcomer of the Year honors for his stunning displays. Over those 13 matches, the man capped 50 times for Uruguay has four goals and eight assists. He has helped make up for the absence of Clint Dempsey, and has developed a partnership with Jordan Morris and Nelson Valdez. As Nicolas Lodeiro goes, so goes Seattle.
Seattle are not alone in having a midfield maestro. Shkelzen Gashi is the man who pulls the strings for Colorado, and he was their leading scorer this year with nine goals and joint second-leading assister with four assists. The Albanian won Goal of the Year for his magnificent free kick against the Vancouver Whitecaps, and it was his moment of magic against the LA Galaxy in the Conference Semifinal that leveled the tie.
Both midfielders represent the best of their team in attack. Which one shows up over the two legs will likely decide who moves on to the MLS Cup Final.
2.) Can Osvaldo Alonso continue his terrific run of form?
Osvaldo Alonso has been in imperious form of late for Seattle, dictating play when his side is in possession and reading the game brilliantly to break up the opposition's passing moves. Alonso has completed 91% of his passes this season while attempting 2,235. No player in the league completed more, and no one else who attempted more than 1,000 topped a 90% completion percentage. That work hasn't been done merely by knocking the ball about with his goalkeeper and back four either; 76% of his attempted passes have been forward. He is the metronome of the Seattle attack.
At the other end of the field, he has also been a rock defensively, leading the league in duels won, tackles won and recoveries. This is the first time the midfielder has been healthy for the duration of a season in quite some time, and he has rewarded himself and his team with quite possibly his best season as a professional. If he continues playing like he has over the two legs, it will mean only good things for the Sounders.
3.) How does the Colorado defense cope with Seattle's pace?
In Lodeiro and Jordan Morris, Seattle have an incredible amount of pace up top. Not only are the two attackers quick, but they move brilliantly between the lines, and are capable of hitting at pace on the counter attack. FC Dallas saw only too well how dangerous they can be once they get their tails up, and the Rapids will need to have learned from the game tape of Seattle's 3-0 victory over Dallas in their Semifinal first leg.
In Axel Sjoberg, Colorado boast one of the finest center backs in MLS. Their defense has been sterling at times this season, but can they contain Seattle, and Lodeiro in particular? It feels likely that is where this match-up will be decided.
Stay tuned to VAVEL MLS for the latest coverage of the 2016 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.