For Real Salt Lake, perhaps no other match will hold as much importance down the stretch as the one Saturday afternoon in Seattle. Not only is it a 6 point Western Conference match between teams fighting for one of the top 3 spots in the conference, which ensures entrance to the MLS Cup Playoffs, but it also will allow RSL to seek revenge for the first MLS team to beat them at Rio Tinto in over two years. There is also the fact that both teams need a win if they want to have any chance of catching the Los Angeles Galaxy in the race for the Supporters' Shield, LA tops MLS with 52 points from 27 matches and are followed by Seattle with 48 points from their 27 matches, RSL has 42 points from 25 matches.
RSL seem to finally have gotten some form back after a couple of weeks of late mistakes costing them points, when these two teams faced off last time it was a late red card to Jamison Olave that opened the door for the Sounders to get a couple goals and leave Rio Tinto Stadium the first MLS team in over two years with a full 3 points. Last weekend when the rest of MLS was off, Real was able to get an early lead over the Philadelphia Union and then held on as the Union fought back to hold on to the lead for the 2-1 win. It was the first time since July that the team got back to back wins and only the 3rd time all season for multiple wins in a row.
The Sounders have only lost once since May, a 3-1 loss at Houston and after some early struggles at home they have improved to a 7-2-4 record at the newly named CenturyLink Field and then they went down to Mexico and became the second MLS team this year to get a win in Mexico as they beat Monterrey 1-0. They also have qualified for their 3rd straight US Open Cup final, with their 1-0 win over FC Dallas, and will face the Chicago Fire for the title.
I expect a great match between these two teams as both have a lot to play for. After the jump, my Key Match Up, Wildcards, and my prediction for the match.
Key Match Up:
Osvaldo Alonso vs. Kyle Beckerman -
Each team puts an incredible amount of pressure on their defensive midfielders to control the match and both Osvaldo and Kyle, two very different players, have lived up to the expectations and then some. Both are players who simply refuse to leave the pitch with anything left, they work as hard as any player on their team and leave the pitch at the end of the match knowing they have given all they can.
Osvaldo burst on the MLS scene when he joined the Sounders and the 25 year old has been a regular fixture in their starting XI since day one. In 2007 while playing for Cuba in the Gold Cup, he defected to the United States and before joining the Sounders he played in the USL. He isn't the biggest guy on the pitch, not the fastest, but he has that take no prisoners mentality that makes him one of the very best d-mid's in MLS. He works hard to break up opposition attacks and has a toughness that is hard for anyone to deny or match.
Kyle at just 29 years old is playing in his 12th MLS season, and since joining RSL has been one of the most influential players to ever wear the claret and cobalt. Kyle is the type of player that opposing fans hate, because he is always around the ball and always being disruptive, that also makes him the type of player that fans of his team and his teammates really love. Like Osvaldo, he is simply a work horse who puts in as much effort as anyone on the pitch every match. Kyle this year has adapted from his normal style of play with RSL to help use his passing and offensive skills that were put on the back burner in recent years, and he has quickly found himself with the most assists,8, ever in his career and his 3 goals is the 2nd most ever for him.
Both of these players make their teams better and when they are in top form and playing well can make their teams almost impossible to beat, the great thing about this match is that both have been very, very good in recent weeks.
It isn't often that a player simply bursts onto the MLS scene the way Lamar has and few are such great stories of a local kid who has done so well. He was signed by the Sounders after graduating from UNLV, but seeing no playing time in 2009 he spent 2010 playing in the USL before returning this year. What a return it has been, he has only started in 5 matches but played in 17 for the Sounders, he has 5 goals and 1 assist, but the number that simply impresses me is 3, that is the number of game winning goals he has scored this year, the most of any Sounder player. Keep your eyes on number 27, he can change a match in an instant.
The start of the year was one where Paulo Jr. was poised to become a household name around MLS, he had played well in Champions League and with limited minutes in 2010 for RSL and he had two goals in the first 3 matches of the season. Then came the injury that limited him from playing for months, and now in recent weeks he has finally returned to action and while he has had to adjust to a team that has been struggling with injuries and national team callups, he has shown those moments of flash that have excited RSL fans in the past. I doubt he will get the start in Seattle but don't be surprised to see him come on with 20 minutes or so left in the match and use his speed and goal scoring touch to make a difference in this one.
Oh my here we go again, another official with limited experience in MLS, just 13 previous matches. Yes RSL and all MLS teams continue to see their hardwork on the pitch often overshadowed by poor or at best questionable officiating. In his 13 previous matches, Mark has called an average of 23.2 fouls per match, issued an average of 3.2 yellow cards and 3 times he has reached for the red card in the back pocket and 4 times he has pointed to the PK spot. I continue to each week just hope that we can have a match where the players control the outcome, not an official who makes a rash call, or is out of position on a critical call, or one who simply wants to put his stamp on the match in a more aggressive manner than an official should.
Let me be clear about this, RSL has never been a team to get regular season wins on the road. I just hasn't happened often for them since joining the league and I am not sure why, they have proven in Champions League and in the MLS playoffs that they can do well away from Rio Tinto Stadium, but the consistency has never been there. Since leaving Rice Eccles the team has never done real well playing on turf either, but I don't believe that either of those will actually impact this match. RSL players and staff know that every match down the stretch is a must win if they want to claim one of the 3 guaranteed playoff spots that the Western Conference will get, and if they are going to have any chance (as remote as it may be) of catching the Los Angeles Galaxy in the race for the Supporters' Shield then they need to win on the road.
If you look at the numbers these two teams are very, very similar. Seattle have scored multiple goals in 11 of their 27 matches, RSL has done so in 10 of 25, the Sounders have only been shut out 6 times, RSL has been shut out 7 times. Both teams have allowed 1 goal or less in 19 of their matches, and both teams are their most productive on offense in the final 15 minutes of matches. The Sounders have 13 of 42 goals (25 percent) in the final 15 minutes, while RSL have 9 of their 35 (25.7%) goals in the final 15 minutes.
For RSL the challenge will be cooling off a team unbeaten in their last 8 matches and finding a way to get a third straight win. The Sounders have only 8 clean sheets this year, and in their 8 match unbeaten streak they have given up multiple goals 4 times, while holding a clean sheet just 3 times. The question mark for RSL all year has been finishing, the team has created quality chances in almost every match but far too often they have failed to capitalize on them. We know both teams will fight for possession and look to control the pace and tempo of the match by connecting quality passes and forcing the other team to chase, I expect each team will get more than 10 shots off during the match, I expect each to get 5 or so shots on goal, the question is which team will finish. Both teams score a majority of their goals inside the penalty area, but for me it will likely be the team that can sneak a goal from distance that might get the full 3 points in this one.
You can see a great interactive lineup card here, it reflects my best guess at the starting XI for RSL:
Nick Rimando, Blake Wagner (not sure about the injury status of Robbie Russell), Jamison Olave, Nat Borchers, Tony Beltran, Andy Williams, Kyle Beckerman, Luis Gil, Will Johnson, Fabian Espindola, and Alvaro Saborio
As much as both teams need a win, I have a feeling this one is likely to end up a 1-1 or 2-2 draw, but with both teams scoring a quarter of their goals in the final 15 minutes of matches, anything can and likely will happen in this one. You can check out the Sounders viewpoint in this match preview from Sounder at Heart.
OFF MY SOAPBOX