The must-see game of the weekend pairs the top two teams in the Western Conference, San Jose and Seattle, which have already staged three intense, memorable games this season.
San Jose and Seattle play their fourth match Saturday night and topping what they've produced in the first three encounters will take some doing. (TV: MLS Direct Kick, MLS Live, 10:30 pm ET).
The stakes seem high enough given their respective placings. The Quakes top all teams in MLS with 57 points, the Sounders are second in the West with 48. Quakes forward Chris Wondolowski leads the league in goals with 21, the Sounders' pairing of Eddie Johnson (13 goals) and Fredy Montero (12) is regarded as one of the best in the league. And in addition to being a matchup of No. 1 and No. 2, there's been plenty of tension and controversy so far.
The Quakes have won both league meetings, 1-0 in April at CenturyLink Field and 2-1 last month at Buck Shaw Stadium. A controversial penalty kick awarded after Steven Lenhart went down in the penalty area decided the first match, and in the second the Sounders scored a tying goal in a stoppage time only to concede the winner a minute later.
Sandwiched into between those San Jose victories is a contentious U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco June 26 that went to the Sounders, 1-0, and ended with the benches emptying and players and coaches swirling about in a spirited melee. The cause of all the confrontation, Seattle forward Johnson, won't be suiting up Saturday. He's suspended for yellow-card accumulation and though he didn't score in the Open Cup match he did prompt the scuffle by strutting a strong-man pose as he ran just yards in front of the San Jose bench.
Exactly what occurred next varies by eyewitness, but by most accounts assistant coach Ian Russell attempted to intervene, Johnson pushed him away, and as Quakes players came off the bench defender Jed Zayner got cuffed by Johnson near the eye. The match officials spent several minutes trying to cool down the hot tempers. More confusion reigned outside the team locker rooms, where incensed Quakes coach Frank Yallop berated the Sounders for a minute or so before being pulled inside.
After he reappeared to answer reporters' questions, he apologized for his remarks and gave Seattle its due for winning.
A few minutes later, Seattle coach Sigi Schmid emerged and delivered a scathing critique of Lenhart, whose rambunctious play and propensity to fall didn't sit well with the opposition. "Somebody has to do something about Lenhart," said Schmid, perhaps in reference to the tumble at CenturyLink Field in April that drew the PK. "He's completely out of control. I'm not saying this because I condone what Eddie did, because I don't. And I know Lenhart, I drafted the kid [as coach of Columbus], so I know what he's about. But somebody has to do something."
Six and half weeks later at Buck Shaw, Seattle joined a growing list of teams victimized by the Cardiac Quakes, not to mention Lenhart. A minute after Montero equalized in the 92nd minute, Lenhart got his head to a Shea Salinas corner kick and crashed it into the net for the winning goal. In his postgame remarks Schmid admitted that in this match, at least, Lenhart had concentrated on playing soccer and resorted less to rough stuff.
The Sounders aren't alone in their low opinion of Lenhart's bruising, sometimes crude play and reputation for working the officials. Yallop says, "I think at times he gets called for fouls because of his reputation," and Quakes GM John Doyle cited an incident when Lenhart was whistled for foul that replays revealed no contact at all.
Both teams played tough games Wednesday night. The Quakes preserved their unbeaten streak at Buck Shaw dating back to last year by rallying from a 2-0 deficit to tie Portland with a pair of goals by Wondolowski including an equalizer in, of course, stoppage time. The Quakes have scored eight goals this season after the 90th minute. Seattle ensured a place in the CONCACAF Champions' League quarterfinals by beating Honduran club Marathon, 3-2, after twice taking the lead and conceding equalizers on penalty kicks. Johnson scored Seattle's second goal with a superb chest trap and shot on the turn, and Brad Evans got the winner in the 78th minute.
To have any chance of overhauling San Jose to capture the conference title, the Sounders need a win, and will have another huge crowd roaring them on. It will be one of the season's top matches.