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ASN Playoff Preview

Real Salt Lake—Seattle Battle Could Be a Classic

A rivalry continues to blossom between these two model franchises. Will Real Salt Lake remember how to score goals? Can anybody stop Seattle's deep and talented strike force?
BY Graham Ruthven Posted
November 02, 2012
7:12 AM
Editor's Note: ASN will preview every MLS playoff match/series. Create your ideal Starting XI for the Seattle Sounders or Real Salt Lake.

INTRO: For the second successive year the MLS playoffs has paired Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake together at the Western Conference semifinal stage. With RSL’s unbeaten home streak and Seattle’s boisterous crowds, home advantage will undoubtedly be a factor—but who will use it better? The Sounders get their chance at using a home crowd to take the initiative as they host RSL in the first leg on Friday (NBC Sports Network, 10p.m. ET).

Both sides boast an impressive pedigree, with eight players between them making the ASN 100. The highest-ranked Seattle player of those eight, Eddie Johnson, could miss out due to a hamstring injury suffered against LA Galaxy, but with the Sounders eager to avenge last year’s playoff defeat to the same team, RSL aiming to overcome a recent drought in front of goal, and a capacity crowd expected at CenturyLink Field, this tie promises to be special.

HISTORY: Despite their status as a thriving franchise, Seattle are yet to progress beyond the first stage of the playoffs in their three-year MLS history. In the Sounders’ inaugural MLS season they were eliminated in the first round, with Real Salt Lake going on to lift the MLS Cup in Seattle. And RSL inflicted more pain on Sigi Schmid’s team last year, eliminating Seattle at the first opportunity. There has been little between the two teams this year. In fact, there’s been so little between them that had Mike Magee not scored a late winner for LA Galaxy against Seattle on Sunday, the Sounders would’ve headed into this playoff series as the No. 2 seed, with RSL third. As it is Salt Lake took the second spot, with Sounders falling back to third. This is also illustrated in their regular season results, with Real Salt Lake claiming the only win, 1-0, in their three meetings. The other two were goalless draws.

MATCHUPS: Goals win games but the key matchup in this series could be between the two goalkeepers. Michael Gspurning has grown into Kasey Keller’s rather large gloves this season and is now considered a contender for MLS’ Goalkeeper of the Year award. The Sounders now rely on the Austrian so heavily their worst sequence of regular season form coincided with his absence through injury. In the RSL nets, Nick Rimando, has also become a key figure in his side’s efforts to claim their second MLS Cup title in four years.

The midfield battle between Kyle Beckerman and Osvaldo Alonso also provokes intrigue. Both players have enjoyed a successful year, with their energy and hustle giving their respective teams a solid defensive platform for their more attacking players to base forward moves on.

From an attacking perspective, there aren’t many with a more formidable attacking armory than Seattle, even if Eddie Johnson doesn’t recover in time for Friday’s first leg. The summer addition of Christian Tiffert behind Mauro Rosales, Fredy Montero and Steve Zakuani has given Seattle an extra dimension in attack. It could be enough to give the Sounders the upper hand, especially considering RSL’s recent foibles in front of goal.

TACTICS: Seattle will be hoping to force RSL into adopting a ‘Plan B.’ This involves peppering the opposition penalty area with crosses and long balls in an attempt to forge an opportunity in front of goal. RSL’s cross completion rate is actually among the highest in the league (29%) but in the matches where they have attempted the most crosses they have lost. By packing in defensively Seattle could force RSL into crossing more often and with the directness of Eddie Johnson, Fredy Montero, Mauro Rosales, and Christian Tiffert going forward, a counterattacking system could help them break their playoff hoodoo.

A lack of goals has been a worry for RSL, with head coach Jason Kreis joking “we put them in the bank here in these last three games and decided we will save them up for the first round of the playoffs.” Although the creativity of in-form midfielder Javier Morales could help Kreis combat his side’s anemic attacking displays of late.

PREDICTION: Last year’s thrilling five-goal playoff series between RSL and Seattle might not be matched this season. Regular season results between the two teams and recent form suggests a more defensive clash, particularly at Rio Tinto Stadium (in 270 minutes of soccer only Fabian Espindola’s goal separates the two sides this year). However, Seattle boasts an impressive record at CenturyLink Field, where they’ve lost just once in their last nine home fixtures. A tight game seems likely with Seattle using their pace in attack as a way at getting at the RSL backline, and Kreis relying on the technical creativity of his midfield men to create the opportunities for 17 goal forward Alvario Saborio. Having said all of that, Seattle should advance to the Western Conference Finals.

READER FEEDBACK: So, what do you think? Do you expect tense, taut defensive battles or goals galore? Tell us in the comments below.

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