By JASON MITCHELL
Fixture congestion has been part of life for the Seattle Sounders since joining MLS, with CONCACAF Champions League and U.S. Open Cup runs routinely cluttering the summer schedule. Friendlies against international powerhouses like Chelsea and Barcelona crammed months already brimming with matches that much more full.
Seattle failed to qualify for the 2013-2014 CCL tournament, has already been eliminated from this year’s Open Cup, and has announced no summer friendlies.
For the first time in club history the summer and fall calendar marches along with something of a regular match-a-week rhythm. There is also the occasional yawning gulf between action: Saturday’s trip to Utah to face Real Salt Lake constitutes the Sounders’ lone match in a span of 24 days.
Potential upsides abound. A team that has admitted to running out of gas toward the end of seasons should have fresher, healthier legs and a more concentrated focus on league play.
And players like Osvaldo Alonso will miss fewer games while recovering from injury.
The 27-year-old central midfielder limped off the field in the 22nd minute of the Sounders’ 2-0 victory over Chivas USA on June 1. The thigh injury, characterized by head coach Sigi Schmid as a “slight muscle tear,” forced Alonso to miss Seattle’s 3-2 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps a week later.
His availability for Saturday’s match against Real Salt Lake remains in question, but even coming off a bye the Sounders have the luxury of another 10-day break following the game.
“We know we’ve got this game against Salt Lake, then we have another window period of time,” Schmid said Monday in team-provided quotes. “So we’re trying to make sure we make the right decision going into this game, [make sure] that we don’t try and push him into the Salt Lake game and then lose him again.”
If Alonso sits Saturday but returns for the Sounders’ midweek match against DC United July 3, he will have been sidelined for more than a month while missing only two matches—something almost unheard of in seasons past.
Moreover, players across the team have had a chance to get a little rest and relaxation. Obafemi Martins reportedly visited his fiance in Milan, his first break since before the La Liga season began last fall. Others surely enjoyed slightly less cosmopolitan down-time.
“Maybe they’ve got some ‘honey-do’ lists to take care of at home from the wives or whatever the case may be,” Schmid said. “But it was good for them to get away physically and mentally.”
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Rivalry resumes at Real Salt Lake
Sounders fans undoubtedly care most about all things Cascadia, but on the pitch their club’s rivalry against Real Salt Lake has probably been unmatched in intensity, quality, or importance.
Fifteen head-to-head matches across all competitions have left the teams even at 5-5-5. Real Salt Lake booted the Sounders from the playoffs in 2011, while Seattle returned the favor in 2012. Two regular-season matches in 2011 featured two straight red cards, 10 yellows, and a 2-1 victory for each team. Three regular-season matches in 2012 saw a lone goal in a Real Salt Lake victory, two scoreless draws, and 12 more yellow cards.
The first match this season, a 2-1 RSL victory in late March that saw Salt Lake run rampant for much of the night, is widely seen as the night the Sounders turned their season around.
Trailing 2-0 heading into the locker room at halftime, Sigi Schmid—coach of an 0-2-1 team at the time—was asked how he planned to correct things at halftime.
“We’re gonna yell at ‘em,” Schmid said. Since then Seattle is a league-best 6-1-2.
“Obviously we’re a lot more confident now than we were then,” Schmid told reporters Tuesday.
It’s all set to resume Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, and never have the teams met with both playing such good soccer.
Seattle (6-4-3, 21 points) might be 6-1-2 over its last nine games, but Real Salt Lake (6-4-3, 21 points) is not far behind at 6-2-1. Seattle has won five of its last six matches, scoring four goals on two separate occasions. Real Salt Lake has won three of its last four, and has outscored its last two opponents by a combined scored of 6-1. Both team have worked themselves into the thick of the playoff and Supporters’ Shield races.
“Salt Lake is a team we get excited to play,” Schmid said.
The teams will play each other a third and final time on Sept. 13 in Seattle.
U.S.-Honduras trio heads back to Seattle
Brad Evans, Eddie Johnson, and Mario Martinez were all due back from national team duties Wednesday. Evans played 90 minutes Tuesday in the United States’ 1-0 victory over Honduras at Rio Tinto Stadium, while Johnson went 87 minutes for the Americans and Mario Martinez logged 69 minutes for Honduras.
While Seattle plays in Utah just four days after the the national team, the Sounders nonetheless decided to fly the trio back to Seattle for late-week training. The team is unsure if any or all will be available this weekend.
Yedlin makes World Cup debut Friday
One player definitely not available Saturday is 19-year-old right back DeAndre Yedlin. The Seattle native, called up for the U-20 World Cup in Turkey, begins play with the rest of the national team early Friday morning. The U.S. plays Spain at 1:45 p.m. ET on ESPN2. Group play continues for the U.S. with a match against France on Monday and concludes against Ghana on Thursday.
What do you think? Will the Sounders be able to leverage a lighter schedule into the Supporters’ Shield or even a trip to MLS Cup? Who comes out on top in this weekend’s big rivalry match? Think Yedlin shines for the U-20s?
Share your thoughts below.