Well, you can try to spin it any way you want? You can use Star Wars analogies, you can try to evoke the spirits of your successful regular season, heck you can even try to paint yourself now as the underdog, but for the Seattle Sounders there is are some simple realities that they must overcome on your way to becoming "great legends"
Trust me I have been there and I would never want a fan of any team to give up hope, heck it was just a year ago that RSL was coming off season that saw them just a win away from the Supporters' Shield, a year that saw them become the first MLS team to win a Champions League group, but then after being matched up against the 3rd best team in MLS in the first round of the playoffs they ran into a brick wall they couldn't overcome. It hurt, losing the first leg on the road and then being forced to play for a big win at home but coming up just short.
For RSL the task might seem lite at this point, just hold on and don't give up 3 goals. It has been almost a decade since a MLS side overcome a 3 goal deficit to win a playoff series, there is a reason for that, it isn't easy, in fact it is almost impossible. I like confidence, I love optimism, but I also like a dose of reality and I have a feeling Wednesday night will provide a big time dose of reality for the Sounders.
After the jump, my Key Match Up, my Wildcards, my RSL Starting XI, and my prediction:
Key Match Up:
Desperation vs. Determination -
So Real Salt Lake will be coming in with the determination to recover something from a season that 9 months ago offered so many chances for good things, but somehow heartbreak has been all they have been able to walk away with. On Saturday they made a statement that there are more than willing to fight for the last of the prizes still available and showed the style and flair that had so many people intrigued about what RSL might be able to do when the season started.
For the Sounders it has been a year of big things, they were able to host a huge crowd in their friendly against Man U, they were able to secure their 3rd straight US Open Cup title, they were able to advance out of their CONCACAF Champions League Group, and they were able to keep pressure on LA in the run for the Supporters' Shield, any one of those are enough for most teams to deem their season a success. Then came Saturday, when all of a sudden the Sounders put themselves in a huge hole by allowing RSL to get a 3-0 win in the first leg of the playoff matchup.
Wednesday evening these two teams will face off, and both have elements of desperation and determination coming into the match. RSL is determined to protect their lead and to do so by playing their style of soccer, this will answer their desperation to capture some silverware this year and do their best to secure a spot in the 2012/13 version of the Champions League. The Sounders are determined that there is still more for them to accomplish, including proving to everyone that they can win in the playoffs, they currently sit 0-4-1 with just a single goal scored and 7 goals allowed. They are also desperate to create a moment for their fans, by coming from behind and advancing in the playoffs.
One thing is clear there is still a lot left on the line for both teams, we saw which team stepped up and answered the call on Saturday, all that remains is what happens on Wednesday night.
Will Johnson -
One of the things that often keeps RSL going is the effort and energy of it's players and nobody will give you more of that than Will Johnson. I thought the job he did Saturday of not only keeping James Riley from being able to move forward in support of the Sounders offensive efforts, but also his ability to get forward in support of the RSL attack (Will had 3 shots with 2 being on goal) were keys to the RSL effort. Will has a strong leg and with the Sounders having to push forward and chase goals it might open up even more chances for Will to find the back of the net.
Osvaldo Alonso -
Oh the myth of the honey badger, it seems that the reality of Alonso was much less epic than the youtube video of the animal that bears his nickname on Saturday. In fact Osvaldo hasn't very scored a goal against RSL, but he has contributed a couple of assists. I believe he has more yellow cards against RSL than that, and we all know that if MLS had real officials or a consistent effort from their Disciplinary Committee that he wouldn't even be a factor in this match at all. However we do have to deal with the reality that of all the Sounders players who will be looking to rebound from Saturday, perhaps none will be more hungry than Alonso.
Jair Marrufo -
That name might make people cringe a bit around MLS, and there were plenty of questions after his handling of Sunday's Houston at Philly match but for RSL fans this might not be a bad thing. Jair has been in charge of two RSL matches, both came early on in the season. The first was the 4-1 beatdown of the LA Galaxy, a match that saw 21 fouls called (11 on RSL and 10 on LA) and 4 yellow cards (all given to LA players. The second was the 1-0 RSL loss at Portland where just 19 fouls were called (10 on Portland, 9 on RSL) and just one yellow card was issued. We have seen all year that the officials can be a huge factor in matches, and while I think Mark Geiger did his best and called the match fairly evenly, there were mistakes. Hopefully such a big match won't have any mistakes that impact the final outcome.
My RSL Starting XI:
So this is more tricky than usual but without knowing how the final fitness tests for Nat Borchers or Jamsion Olave will go, I am going to still try to pick a lineup:
Nick Rimando, Robbie Russell, Nat Borchers, Chris Schuler, Chris Wingert, Ned Grabavoy, Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, Will Johnson, Fabian Espindola, and Alvaro Saborio
Listen the harsh reality is that the Honey Badger is a chicken killer, and while they might be tough we know that RSL was able to render Seattle's harmless on Saturday. I expect that he will come out with a bit more drive and passion early in the match, and that could lead to another yellow card for his sometimes reckless behavior. It is going to take more than one player from Seattle to breakdown RSL and get a 3 goal win, we have seen that there are some players on the Sounders that are capable of huge games, Lamar Neagle had a hat trick against Columbus, Fredy Montero has had multiple, multiple goal matches. No team scored more goals than the Sounders in 2011, but that harsh reality of struggling in MLS playoffs is also there, the 1 goal in five matches, the no wins in the MLS postseason.
For RSL being the underdog is nothing new, and this year having some runs of great form is also nothing new, a 4 game winning streak to start the season, a 5 game winning streak that included 3 road wins. We also have seen RSL lose by 3 goals 3 times in their last 6 regular season matches, but that was after the team knew they had secured their playoff spot, it was without Kyle Beckerman in the lineup, none of those did RSL have a fit Javier Morales in their lineup.
Oh I know that Sigi and others would love an epic come from behind story, but let's be honest they didn't think they would be in this situation, they were counting on taking advantage of a down RSL on Saturday, but then they ran into a team that simply wanted it more. I expect a valiant battle from the Sounders, heck they might even win, but they aren't going to win by more than 3 goals, they aren't going to win by 3 goals to force extra time or PK's. This is the playoffs and this is where individual efforts (which have kept Seattle going all year) aren't enough, this is where 11 men with a singular vision is simply too hard for any 1, 2, or 3 players to overcome.
This match ends a 2-2 draw as RSL simply take advantage of a very desperate Sounders team that leaves themselves open for quick counter attacks and shots from long range.
OFF MY SOAPBOX