The first half of their debut MLS season behind them, Seattle Sounders FC enters the home stretch sitting in position for a playoff run. With a record of six wins, three losses, and seven draws, SSFC's 25 points puts them 3rd in the Western Conference and in the MLS overall.
The Sounders are also making their mark felt in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup as one of only four remaining MLS teams left in the tournament. They face the Kansas City Wizards this Tuesday for a quarterfinal match.
Despite their somewhat unexpected success, there are some questions that will need answered if SSFC expects to make a run to an MLS Cup located fittingly at home on the XBox 360 Pitch at Qwest Field.
1) Which Fredy Montero will show up for the second half?
The young Colombian import is undoubtedly one of the most talented young prospects in the MLS. Starting out red-hot with three goals in two games earning him March's MLS Player of the Month honors, the rest of the league took immediate notice and set on a strategy of sending him off his feet more often than on them.
Meanwhile, off the pitch troubles seemed to distract him and his work rate fell along with his confidence.
However, in the last few matches his focus seems renewed along with his ability to find the back of the net. Montero now stands second best in the league with eight goals and is also clicking with fellow forward Nate Jaqua and midfielder Freddy Ljungberg; the assists killing questions of his selflessness.
The Sounders fortunes seem to rise and fall with Montero's productivity, so if Montero stays hot, this is a dangerous team.
2) Can Alonso stay healthy?
Ask an SSFC supporter who the MVP of the first half is and you might be surprised to find Osvaldo Alonso at the top of the list. The defensive central midfielder picked up from the USL side Charleston Battery after defecting from Cuba two summers ago, has been a revelation.
The man is a menace to opposing sides offensive goal production winning ball after ball and killing counter-attacks so quickly that most of the season thus far is spent in the Sounder's attacking third. In short, he's a wrecking ball that also brings the ability to send a screamer in from way outside.
Unfortunately his physical play has also taken its toll and has already rode two separate injuries off the pitch the first, a strained quad and now an abductor. Like Montero, his absence coincided with a lengthy series of draws that resulted from defensive breakdowns that were unheard of while he was in service.
With a couple weeks off he should be back in action, but a dinged up Alonso clearly changes SSFC's ability to come away with three points.
3) What will Leonardo Gonzalez add to the defense?
Despite being an expansion team, depth has been a surprising strength for SSFC. Already we've seen a number of sendoffs due to injury or red card bookings that have meant a large number of reserves capably holding down the fort at key positions. If there is a knock on SSFC, it's been at the left back position with several teams exploiting whoever Sigi Schmidt has thrown at it.
Gonzalez, a 28-year-old Costa Rican international with 59 caps, is big, fast, and left-footed with a reputation as a deft attacker out of the left back and midfield. Called to national duty, he won't be ready until the Tico's are out of the Gold Cup which figures to be late. But even available in late August, he could be the fix for the only glaring hole in Sigi's lineup.
4) Can they win away from the fortress?
SSFC supporters should be proud. In their first season Seattle has rapidly become the most feared place to visit in the MLS. The Sounders clearly feed off that energy and have the second highest goals for/against ratio at home.
You can't play every game at home though, and the second half sees eight of their final 14 matches away including a long three game road trip. In addition to leaving the comfy confines of Qwest Field, longtime Seattle fans know what the road does to Pacific Northwest teams.
Having to travel further than every other team in the league takes its toll on every athlete, and so far the Sounders haven't had to deal with the oppressive summer heat that some MLS venues offer.
If the Sounders want to be playing into November, they'll have to pick up points on the road.
5) Can Nate Jaqua avoid distraction?
Unfortunately off the field problems have been a major part of the story thus far. First Montero was charged with a sexual assault and eventually exonerated, but this week Fredy's fellow forward was slapped with a lawsuit over an alleged sex crime as well.
It's too early to speak to the merits of the case but Jaqua denies the charges and seems supported by his family and the team.
Jaqua fills what is becoming the prototype striker role in a physical MLS. His size draws attention for a team that generates a large number of corner opportunities, and though he sometimes brings his lead shoes, Jaqua holds the ball up well and appears to be building a good working relationship with Montero and Ljungberg connecting on a number of clever plays in the last couple weeks.
If he can keep his head in the game, he presents a number of problems for the back line of almost any team.
6) Will bookings continue to be a problem?
The occasional infraction is a part of the game. No aggressive player can completely avoid seeing yellow. But the run of losses and draws seen this season also saw a spate of red cards leaving the Sounders without important players at times.
Some of it is dumb luck. Keller getting called for a handball is a once in a career fluke. Montero got his arm up with incidental contact but it's a point of league emphasis. There have also been serious mental lapses with cards for fighting and dissent.
A team meeting set to focus on things other than the officiating seems to have worked, but Ljungberg in particular continues to argue calls. With attacks typically beginning or ending at Ljungberg's feet, it seems foolish to risk losing him for a match down the stretch because of a call he felt should go the other way.
It's a rare day when a good yelling changed a referree's mind...let it go Fred. Let it go.
In all SSFC has a number of things going for it that make it a dangerous side. They probably won't be winning a lot of matches 1-0. This is a team that has a lot of offensive weapons, an aggressive strategy, which means lots of goals all around.
They have talented reserves anchored by a core from the USL Sounders like fan favorite Sebastian Le Toux and Roger Levesque.
If they answer these questions, continue to create opportunities and a bit of luck, this is a team that could see itself playing for the MLS Cup in front of 60,000 of its fans at home.