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Real Salt Lake at Seattle Sounders - Match Preview

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Well it was 10 months ago that RSL ended their 2009 season with a win at Qwest Field to claim the MLS Cup, now they will return to Qwest to face the Sounders and a win would put RSL at the top of both the Western Conference and the race for the Supporters' Shield.  Oh how I wish I was going to be there Thursday night.

For the Seattle Sounders the second half of the season has been much nicer than the first, on July 4th they lost 3-1 at the Los Angeles Galaxy and sat in 7th place in the West with a 4-8-3 record and just 15 points from 15 matches. Then the team turned things around and now have a 9-9-5 record and sit in 5th place in the West and if the playoff started today, they would be in.  A big part of their turn around has been on defense where they have 4 clean sheets in their last 8 matches, but they still have an over all -3 goal differential.  A win over RSL would move them to 35 points and leap frog them into 4th place in the West and closer to securing a playoff spot.

It is kinda funny that all the attention around RSL has been focused on their MLS record tying 22nd home match without a loss, and while "Castle Real" is something to be proud of, people should remember that RSL has lost just one match since April.  That is 5 months with just a single loss, and since then they are 2-1-4 on the road and for the season have a +/- 0 road goal differential.  A road win by RSL would allow RSL to leap frog LA for first in the Western Conference, as well as leap frog both LA and Columbus for first place in the race for the Supporters' Shield.

So both teams have a lot at stake when they take the pitch at Qwest field late Thursday evening.

Key Match-ups, Wildcards, and my prediction after the jump:

Key Match-Ups:

Javier Morales vs. Osvaldo Alonso:

These two players are huge parts of their teams and without them their teams suffer.  Javier Morales is one of a unique brand of players who when he is "on" can dominate a match, RSL fans saw that a couple weeks ago against the Columbus Crew.  If you want to know how important Alonso is to Seattle, consider he went out injured on May 8th and came back on July 11th and Seattle was 2-6-0 in that time period.  Since his return they are 5-1-2, and right back into the playoff hunt.

Javier Morales has 6 goals and 6 assists this year, including 3 game winning goals and 2 game winning assists, but those are just numbers and the impact of Javi is far more than just the numbers.  His understanding of the game and abilities to leverage his teammates and get them involved in the match is one of the major factors in RSL's success the last two years.

Osvaldo was a prize pickup for the Sounders and someone that Sigi had his eyes on before taking the job in Seattle, Alonso defected from Cuba when the team was here for the Gold Cup and landed in the USL before signing with the Sounders and from day one of his arrival he has been the glue that holds their game plan in place. His ability to control the midfield and to stop opposing offenses has allowed the Sounders to jump from expansion side to playoff contenders.  Oh I know there are others who play their role but as I pointed out you only need to look at their record this year when he was out injured and what the team has been able to do since his return.

There is no clear advantage in this match up and I can't wait to watch these two battle all over the pitch as each will look to control the match for their team.

Nick Rimando vs. Kasey Keller:

The greatest American goal keeper of all times, is anyone out there going to deny that Keller is simply the best ever to have come from the US?  The best keeper in MLS right now, the SB Nation gave Nick the nod in their recent votes for Keeper of the year.  It should be interesting to watch how these two step up in a huge 6 point match for both sides.

Kasey Keller, for over 20 years he simply has been one of the best no matter where he has played.  From his start in Portland to his time with the USMNT (over 100 caps), the 6'2" keeper has been a great ambassador of the sport. He played all but one match for the Sounders last year, and has missed 45 minutes of action this year.  This year with the injuries and questionable defense in front of him, his GAA has jumped to 1.24, up from 0.92 in 2009 and yet he still has 8 clean sheets and the Sounders are just one win shy of double digit wins for the second straight year.

There isn't much more I can add about Nick Rimando that wasn't said in the Scouting Report by Sounder at Heart:

"As good as RSL has been at scoring goals, they have been just as good at preventing them. The headliner in the back is, unquestionably, Nick Rimando. The 31-year-old American currently leads the league in goals against average (0.68) and shutouts (12 and currently riding a 369-minute goalless streak). He's also second in save percentage (79.5) and is fourth in saves (66)."

Scouting Report: Real Salt Lake by Sounder at Heart

Nick has never been the prototypical keeper in MLS, where size is often the first thing looked at but he has reflexes like a cat and a vision and understanding for the game that make him one of the most valuable pieces to the RSL team effort.

Based on recent form I would give a slight edge to Nick but Kasey loves performing well at home in front of his many fans.

Wildcards:

Nate Jaqua:

OK, you may not follow @ZombieJaqua on twitter but I would ask why not, he has some of the best tweets.  I can only wish slaying or at least stopping the real thing was as easy as unfollowing someone on twitter, Nate has been a "RSL Killer" with 6 goals and 1 assist in his 781 minutes of playing time against RSL.  With one of their new DP's Blaise Nkufo still injured it may mean that RSL will have their hands full with Jaqua from the start of the match. Nate has battled injuries all season and has only seen 197 minutes of MLS action with no goals and no assists, but he has been hot in the US Open Cup and I hope that remains the case.

Alvaro Saborio:

Slightly banged up, enough that it kept him out of Costa Rica's match this weekend, and with this match being on turf, you have to wonder if Jason Kreis will risk further injury to what has clearly been one of the biggest newcomers to MLS this season.  With 8 goals and 4 assists, Saborio has quickly paid off for RSL, but he has yet to find the back of the net in a MLS match away from "Castle Real". Could tonight be the night when he shows opposing fans that he is one of the most dangerous strikers in Major League Soccer?

Paul Ward:
Oh if you are a RSL fan you know all about Paul Ward, you remember the first CCL match where it seemed like Arade Unido was more interested in nap time than in playing soccer in the second half?  I really did expect some of their players to look for mats to lay on.  It was clear that towards the end of the match he had enough of their tactics and grandstanding and it reflected in how he called the match.  Ward has 20 MLS matches under his belt, he calls an average of 23 fouls per match and issues 3.3 yellow cards per match.  6 times he has reached to the back pocket for the red card, and 3 times he has pointed to the spot.  I actually expect him to call a even match and I can only hope that we don't have any questions about the officials after the match.

My Prediction:

Real Salt Lake has some injuries that could really impact the lineup they put out tonight, plus the suspension of Jamison Olave for yellow cards could mean that we see a lineup that looks like the one RSL put out against Philly about a month ago, but the Sounders are no Union and after their tough 3-1 loss at New England will be looking to get back on the winning path.  Both teams have a lot of matches coming up in the next few weeks with the MLS schedule heating up, Champions League, and for Seattle a US Open Cup final just weeks away.

This like so many other matches will come down to which team can get off to a hot start, RSL has scored 6 goals in the first 15 minutes of matches and 12-1-1 when scoring first.  Seattle also has found the back of the net 6 times in the first 15 minutes of matches this year and are 8-2-3 when scoring first.  The two sides are a combined 1-10-4 when the other team scores first.  One telling factor is that Seattle has allowed 9 goals in the final 15 minutes of matches this year, RSL just 4.

Picking a winner in this one is tough as the injury and lineup question on both sides make it tough to know what could happen, I am really tempted to take the easy way out and pick this one to end in a 1-1 draw, but I have a feeling that knowing a win would boost them to the top of both the West and Supporters' Shield races may be enough to give players an extra boost for RSL and this one ends up 2-1 for RSL.

OFF MY SOAPBOX