SEATTLE – There isn’t much mystery to what the Sounders need to do if they want to extend their unbeaten streak to seven games.
Shutting down Minnesota United FC on the road Saturday will involve the same thing done in beating them at home 3 1/2 months ago: Containing high-powered forward Darwin Quintero. To say that Quintero, 30, the Colombian-born Major League Soccer all-star and first designated player in Minnesota franchise history is a one-man wrecking crew isn’t overstating it.
Quintero has nine goals and eight assists in just 17 games for the Loons already and is the main reason Minnesota continues to lead the Sounders by two points in the Western Conference standings. Considering Minnesota’s porous defending, which has allowed an MLS-worst two-goals-per-game and at times resembles a second or third division unit, about the only way to lose to the second-year squad is forgetting Quintero exists.
“It’s about being mindful where he’s at when you have the ball and thinking worst case scenario,” said Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan, who’ll likely face the bulk of slowing Quintero up before he gets going. “And then, stopping him or fouling him as much as you can.”
In many ways, Saturday’s contest is shaping up as a bit of a “trap game” for a Sounders team that might be tempted to look past a squad they defeated 3-1 at CenturyLink Field back in April. But the surprising Loons have actually won four of their last six matches and are 8-3-1 at home compared to 1-9-3 on the road.
They’ve scored 16 goals during the six-match stretch, with Quintero notching six of them – including a dynamic hat-trick against Toronto FC being hailed as the league’s top individual performance this season.
Throw in the fact the Sounders haven’t always played great during their 4-0-2 stretch and this game is no throwaway. In fact, the Sounders very much need to pick up a three-point victory where they can in their quest to make up a five-point gap with Real Salt Lake for the final conference playoff spot.
A few months ago, even when not playing their best soccer, Minnesota kept things interesting against the Sounders in what stayed a one-goal affair until Jordy Delem salted it away late in stoppage time. Quintero assisted on Minnesota’s only goal of the game, by Christian Ramirez, and remained a threat throughout.
Roldan says Quintero, a freshly-transplanted Liga MX veteran from Santos Laguna and Club America, can be most dangerous off give aways. Considering the Sounders plan a possession-based attack, the risk of a quick counter by Minnesota looms large.
“He’s a very smooth player,” Roldan said. “He’ll defend at times and sometimes he’ll cheat, but he’s always in a very good spot when they win the ball. He’s always half-turned ready to run into players, ready to slip past players.”
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer has spent much of the past few weeks worrying about integrating forward Raul Ruidiaz into the attack. He’ll again have midfielder Victor Rodriguez out with a hamstring injury in this one and has to offset that while trying to incorporate forwards Will Bruin and Clint Dempsey into the match.
But with Quintero on the other side, his pregame planning this time can’t center too much on just offense.
“He changes everything, have you seen some of his goals?” Schmetzer said of Quintero. “I mean, all of you soccer fans out there have to watch his highlight reel since he’s come to Minnesota because they’ve been fantastic.”
The plan for now is to double-team Quintero where possible and deny him service.
“But that’s easier said than done,” Schmetzer said.
For now, like in the first game at Seattle, they’ll focus on making Quintero pass the ball to somebody else and take their chances.