For Major League Soccer, all attention will be focused on Houston as the Dynamo open their new stadium this week, probably then on Montreal as fans there are flocking to see David Beckham, but the real action of the weekend will be Saturday night at CenturyLink Field in Seattle.
The two teams that are fighting for the top spot in the Western Conference will do battle as the Seattle Sounders will play host to Real Salt Lake, both sides are right were most people expected them to be. The two teams have have faced each other 6 times in MLS action and are 2-2-2 against each other, they played twice in the playoffs last year and each team won the home leg of the series with RSL advancing 3-2 on goal differential, once they have played in the US Open Cup a match Seattle won back in 2008.
The two teams probably have a lot more in common than most people would like to admit, both like to possess the ball, both like to play a more offensive minded style, both have built solid defenses, both apply a lot of pressure in the midfield, and both can find offense from about any position. Both have build a lot of depth, which gives them a lot of options, and both teams have fallen victim to Steven Lenhart.
The Seattle Sounders have played 9 matches so far this year with 6 of their opening 9 being at home, they have a very impressive 7-1-1 record with 13 goals for and just 3 goals allowed. Their only loss came to San Jose, on a PK goal, they have 5 shutouts in their last 6 matches and simply have been impressive all season long.
For Real Salt Lake, this will be their 13th match of the season (most in MLS), they have 7-3-2 record and so far this year their matches have been split between home and away, this will be their 7th road match of the year. This match will mark the third time already this season that RSL has been faced with Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday matches, it also will be the last match the team plays until they face FC Dallas at home on May 26th.
After the jump, the Key Match Up, Wildcards, and more:
Key Match Up:
Osvaldo Alonso vs. Kyle Beckerman - Well this should be the focal match up, but late word is that Alonso might not play, and that would be a shame. Perhaps no two players in MLS today better define the possibilities of the central defensive midfielder better than these two. For Osvaldo, his role is more the pure defensive mid, he is there to break up plays, to get the ball and to unleash his offense and as MLS noted this week he is the best at what he does. Kyle on the other hand is those things but he has a huge responsibility to be a major part of the offense as well, as he is expected to be the outlet pass for all the other midfielders as they come under pressure.
So while the two play the same position, they do play it differently for their teams, but they both do it with a passion and drive that makes them fan favorites for their teams, hated by opposing fans, and respected by players around the league. Neither is remarkably big players Kyle is 5'10, and Osvaldo is 5'11, neither is a speedster, but neither is slow, both are known for their ability to hold the ball and to make the tough passes. Both of them play in almost every match their team plays, both because they are so valuable but also because each of them have the drive that makes them want to be on the pitch.
I really do hope that Alonso is able to go, as the battles between these two have been classics in the past and one of the things that I think makes the RSL vs Seattle matches entertaining to watch every time.
David Estrada - If 3 months ago you had asked most Sounders fans who would be their leading scored heading into the 10th week of the MLS season, I doubt many would have said David Estrada. Drafted #11 in the 2010 MLS draft, Estrada has only appeared in 6 matches his first two years with the team, but with injuries and other issues he was thrust into the starting lineup this year for the Sounders and well has he responded. His 4 goals lead the Sounders and that number is more impressive as you realize that he has taken just 19 shots. His work rate has quickly made him a favorite of the Sounders fans, hopefully RSL will keep him from having anything to celebrate on Saturday.
Ned Grabavoy - It is kinda funny that for so long people didn't pay much attention to Ned, he spend the first couple years as a backup/rotation part of the RSL midfield but if you think about it without Ned we maybe never make it to the 2009 MLS Cup. When he joined RSL off waivers in 2009 he only played 765 minutes, most of those off the bench but it was his appearance as a late sub in Chicago in the Eastern Conference final, and his winning PK goal in the shootout that will forever stick out in my mind. Still since then he has played over 3,000 minutes for RSL, and while his role is usually the outside of the diamond supporting the team on both sides of the ball, we have started to see him take a bit more offensive minded stake in matches this year. Now that he is back fit from his dislocated rib earlier this year, keep your eye on Ned, I think he has some surprises in store for people this year.
Mark Geiger - So Wednesday was the first time all year that I thought a MLS official in a RSL match did the right thing all night long. He let the teams play. Still this year has been full of controversy, some from new officials, some from the more veteran guys, but inconsistency has been the name of the game for officials in MLS almost every week. I actually think over the past couple years that Mark Geiger has been one of the more stable officials, he calls an average of 26.2 fouls per match, issues 3.7 yellows, and in 94 matches he has shown 20 reds and pointed to the PK spot 31 times. Oh how I hope that Saturday we will see a consistent and fairly called match.
My RSL Starting XI:
Nick Rimando, Chris Wingert, Nat Borchers, Chris Schuler, Tony Beltran, Ned Grabavoy, Kyle Beckerman, Luis Gil, Will Johnson, Fabian Espindola, and Alvaro Saborio
No team has scored more than a single goal against the Sounders this year in MLS action, in fact the Sounders have given up just a single goal in their last 6 matches. In almost every MLS match the key is to get the first goal, when you do that you generally will get the win. RSL is 5-0-0 when scoring first, Seattle is 7-0-0 when they get the first goal, RSL has been better this year than most as they are 2-3-1 when giving up the first goal, the Sounders lost the only match this year when they allowed the opposition to score first.
For RSL this is simple, don't allow anything to distract them from what they know they need to do. Pass, Possess, Protect and Score. RSL could take advantage of their ability to start quickly and finish strong, RSL has 2 goals in the first 15 minutes and 5 in the last 15 of matches, Seattle has yet to score a goal in the first or final 15 minutes of matches. So for RSL a quick start is what they need and then to complete their short passes, remember this is a new turf surface in Seattle, so the adjustments will need to come quickly for RSL. If RSL can possess the ball over 54% of the match it should allow them to create good chances and to help protect their back line from the offense of the Sounders.
I think this one is likely going to end up a 1-1 draw but with RSL's ability to get production off their bench late in matches you will want to catch every minute of this match.
OFF MY SOAPBOX