There's a big game happening in Seattle on Sunday.
Defending MLS Cup champions Atlanta United travel to the great Pacific Northwest for a sumptuous Week 19 clash (3:55 pm ET | ESPN and ESPN Deportes in US; TSN1 in Canada).
They are two teams considered among the top contenders for MLS Cup this season and they enter the match at CenturyLink Field with nearly identical records and goal totals: Atlanta are 9W-7L-3D (27 goals scored, 23 conceded) and Seattle are 9W-5L-5D (29 goals scored, 25 conceded). Both sit third in their respective conference.
And with players back from international duty, both teams will be close to full strength, and when these sides are full strength, there aren't many better in the league.
This isn't a classic battle of defense vs. offense, or pace vs. power or any of the narrative-friendly opposites. Both teams are balanced and can win in different ways.
To preview, let's compare the two sides position by position:
It's splitting hairs, but, the Sounders have an edge in goal.
That's no knock on Brad Guzan, of course. It's just that Stefan Frei has been one of the league's most consistent 'keepers for a number of years and he is in the class of 'keepers who too often go underrated (alongside Tim Melia and others).
Frei has a better goals against vs. expected goals against ratio (one of the best in the league this season, per American Soccer Analysis), while Guzan has conceded fewer goals in 2019.
To borrow a premise from Bobby Warshaw: If my life was on the line, I'd take my chances with Frei in goal, though I hope mortality never comes to something so frivolous.
The Sounders have better fullbacks while Atlanta have superior center backs. Which advantage is more pronounced?
Atlanta not having a natural solution at left back tips the scale to Seattle. Both sides have received All-Star caliber performances from at least one defender (Kelvin Leerdam in Seattle, Miles Robinson in Atlanta) and neither have gaping holes -- even when Atlanta's veteran center back Michael Parkhurst ventures to fullback for Atlanta. It's fine, not perfect, but it's just another way to get him on the field. That in and of itself is valuable.
Seattle have been fine since veteran center back Chad Marshall retired, which is something that was not apparent when he first started missing games. Roman Torres elevated his form while early performances from Xavier Arreaga have been encouraging.
Given Nico Lodeiro's deeper role in 2019, this was the closest thing to an easy category to adjudicate.
It comes down to Lodeiro, Cristian Roldan and Gustav Svensson vs. Eric Remedi, Darlington Nagbe and, depending on the day, Pity Martinez or Julian Gressel. Both are balanced and strong, but one team's star has lived up to expectations this season.
Lodeiro, Roldan and Svensson haven't started a game together since April 24 due to injury and international call-ups. With all three fit and back in Seattle, expect it Sunday.
As far as Sunday is concerned, this category relies on health. Generally speaking, Atlanta have the edge here with wingers. If Ezequiel Barco and Tito Villalba remain out, well, the balance temporarily tips to Seattle.
The status for the pair of on-the-mend ATLUTD stars remains up in the air, though both missed the club's Open Cup victory in midweek. Even without them, Atlanta can boast a strong wide tandem. Emerson Hyndman's acquisition lends the option to push Pity Martinez wide, with Gressel or Justin Meram on the opposite flank.
Seattle's Jordan Morris and Victor Rodriguez are among the stronger pairs of wingers in the league, though neither have been prolific lately. Morris has just one goal in nine appearances since mid-March, while Rodriguez has just 2g/3a in 13 appearances this season.
It's Josef. When the question is "who has the better forward(s)?" the answer is almost always Josef.
Last year's Landon Donovan MVP and all-time single-season goal king is in pyrotechnic form, scoring seven goals in his last four games. He's up to 12 goals, seven behind Carlos Vela in the Golden Boot standings. He's not within striking distance yet, but, would you rule him out?
The Sounders have one of the league's top forwards as well, who happens to fit perfectly with their personnel and set-up. They won't be losing sleep about calling Raul Ruidiaz their talisman, even when Martinez is lined up against him. The Peruvian just featured in a Copa America final and is a true poacher in every sense of the word.
Atlanta may have the deepest set of center backs in the league, with Florentin Pogba and Parkhurst as the secondary pairing. Hyndman was signed without a clear role on the first team and when everyone is fit, Villalba might be the odd man out in attack. That's a stout bench.
Seattle have a ton of depth, too, though it took a bit of a hit when Will Bruin went down with an ACL tear. Still, Handwalla Bwana, Nouhou, Danny Leyva and others fill a fun and youthful bench.
It's frankly difficult to separate the two coaches.
After a rough start, Frank de Boer has righted the ship in Atlanta and his team looks more balanced and defensively stout. And that's exactly the description you'd use for Schmetzer's Sounders teams.
In what projects to be a pretty even contest, it'll be interesting which coach makes the first tactical adjustment. Can the other respond in time?