In what could be a preview of the 2013 MLS Cup final, the New York Red Bulls are in Seattle to take on the Sounders on Sunday night in a battle of first-place teams.
The match could be without the top stars for both teams. Clint Dempsey looks unlikely to start for the Sounders as he recovers from a hamstring injury, while Thierry Henry is set to skip the match in order to avoid playing on the artificial turf at CenturyLink Field, and avoid aggravating a chronic Achilles injury.
"It's not something that (Henry) just doesn't like turf," Red Bulls coach Mike Petke said earlier in the week. "He has a chronic issue with his Achilles and if I'm being told by the doctors that it could be damaged, then it's a situation that, are you going to sacrifice or take that risk for one game, no matter what the significance is, when there's stilll three more left to play in the regular season and hopefully the playoffs?"
Despite those absences, the Sounders and Red Bulls should still have plenty of firepower in this battle for the Supporters' Shield. New York is riding a four-match winning streak, but none of those wins came against a team in playoff position at the moment. Seattle will present a significantly tougher challenge, especially if the Red Bulls are without Jamison Olave, who is expected to be left out in order to keep him from playing on artificial turf and aggravating a bad knee he has played through this season.
The Red Bulls face a Seattle side that can rip defenses apart even without Dempsey, as Lamar Neagle, Obafemi Martins and Eddie Johnson have all been scoring goals in recent months. Stopping that trio, especially without the imposing presence of Olave in central defense, will be extremely difficult for a Red Bulls side that has a poor track record of results in Seattle.
New York will need to lean on goalkeeper Luis Robles, who has enjoyed a strong run of form in recent weeks, but Olave's stellar play of late has been key to helping keep chances faced by Robles to a minimum.
Offensively, the Red Bulls will be without Henry as well as injured speedster Bradley Wright-Phillps, who suffered a hamstring injury in New York's 1-0 win versus FC Dallas last weekend. The absence of those two likely means the Red Bulls will trot out a strike tandem of Fabian Espindola and Peguy Luyindula against a Seattle defense that has allowed just two goals in its past six matches.
Red Bulls coach Mike Petke could deploy Australian star Tim Cahill at forward, but Cahill stands a better chance of being deployed in central midfield to try and help keep the Sounders from dominating the middle of the field. A tandem of Cahill and Dax McCarty could hold its own against the Osvaldo Alonso-led Sounders central midfield, which could also include newly acquired Adam Moffat or Andy Rose.
"It's going to be a fun game, and a great test for us," McCarty said. "They'll have 50,000 fans behind them so it should be a great atmosphere and chance for us to show what we can do."