By JOSE M. ROMERO
For the Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake, it has come down to this.
Two of the more evenly-matched teams in the MLS postseason. Two gritty goalkeepers. A number of scoring threats and two scrappy holding/defensive midfielders. It comes down to which team will find some offense against the opponent’s strong defense and goalkeeping.
RSL and Seattle have met four times this season, including last Friday’s first playoff leg. Only one goal has been scored between both teams in those four matches, by Real Salt Lake’s Fabian Espindola on May 12.
With Seattle’s Eddie Johnson and Mauro Rosales, two huge keys to their attack, potentially limited by injuries, the Sounders will count heavily on other scorers to fill the void and find a way to push the team into the conference semifinals for the first time. The memory of a 3-0 loss at Rio Tinto Stadium in last year’s first playoff leg lingers for Sigi Schmid’s team.
But Johnson has said he will play. The question is, how big a factor can the Sounders’ goals leader be if he’s not 100 percent?
Real Salt Lake has a hot goalkeeper in Nick Rimando, who should be busy once again. RSL can’t find the net lately and have gone 332 minutes without a goal in MLS matches, including last week.
Here is closer look at the matchup:
REAL SALT LAKE vs. SEATTLE SOUNDERS
WHEN: at Rio Tinto Stadium: Thursday, 10 p.m. ET (NBC Sports Network).
FIRST LEG: Real Salt Lake earned a 0-0 draw in Seattle last Friday.
SEASON SERIES: Real Salt Lake won once and the two teams played to scoreless draws in three other meetings, including last Friday’s first-leg match in Seattle. On May 12 in the first regular-season meeting, RSL won 1-0 at CenturyLink Field. Then came 0-0 scores on July 4 in Utah and Oct. 17 in Seattle.
KEY PLAYERS – SOUNDERS: F Eddie Johnson (14 goals, 3 assists in MLS games), F Fredy Montero (13 goals 8 assists), M Osvaldo Alonso (1 goal, 2 assists; 4 goals, 3 assists in CCL and U.S. Open Cup), midfielder Mauro Rosales (3 goals, 13 assists), GK Michael Gspurning (0.73 GAA), M Brad Evans (4 goals, 4 assists), D Jeff Parke. REAL SALT LAKE: F Alvaro Saborio (17 goals, 3 assists), F Fabian Espindola (9 goals, 7 assists), M Kyle Beckerman (4 goals, 4 assists), M Javier Morales (3 goals, 9 assists), D Jamison Olave, GK Nick Rimando (5 saves in first leg draw).
WHAT WE LEARNED IN THE FIRST LEG: Seattle missed Eddie Johnson badly. Sammy Ochoa just didn’t provide much of a threat. RSL have found a reliable centerback in Kwame Watson-Siriboe to cover for injured starter Jamison Olave and injured back-up Chris Schuler. Nick Rimando is super-human in the playoffs.
MATCH-UP TO WATCH: Fredy Montero/Eddie Johnson vs. Jamison Olave/Nat Borchers. Johnson is hobbled to at least some degree by a hamstring injury, but the Sounders striker duo must find a way to either create or finish chances and revive a stagnant offense. That’s where Olave, who has a sore hamstring himself, and Borchers come in. They’ll need to keep the quick forwards from finding space and unloading shots on target.
OUTLOOK: These are two teams with struggling offenses, so it’s reasonable to expect a very tight game in which the goalkeeping will be key. RSL is in the more advantageous position, playing at home and not having allowed a goal in Seattle. But Rimando got battered in a collision in the first leg; it remains to be seen how much that affects him in the second leg. The Sounders have history working against them — they’ve never won a first-round playoff series.
PREDICTION: The Sounders really needed a goal at home last Friday. They didn’t get it. That will cost them in this second leg, as Real Salt Lake will be the team to find a way to get one into the net, either in regulation time or in extra time. Though the Sounders have been pretty solid on the road this season and have hung tough in Sandy, Utah in recent meetings, one goal is all it will take to end their season in disappointing fashion yet again.
What do you think of this series? Expecting no more than one goal? Will the Sounders finally win a first-round series? Will Rimando come up big in goal again? Who will score the winner?
Share your thoughts below.