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A look at what will almost certainly be a playoff preview when two teams riddled with international absences take the field at CenturyLink.
In the penultimate State of the MLS Run In post — which will probably show up just before or just after this scouting report — I noted (or will note) that Seattle has a nearly 90% chance of facing Real Salt Lake in the first round of the playoffs. That's a testament to the fact that there's no difference between second and third in the West when it comes to matchups. San Jose has pulled away and clinched the #1 spot, so the only reasonable way the RSL/Seattle repeat face-off gets broken up is if the Galaxy pass up Seattle for 3rd. With the Sounders' 2 point lead and — more importantly at this late stage — game in hand, that's a far shot we measure at about 9%, leaving 1% for the really unlikely event that LA enters the top 3 at RSL's expense instead of Seattle's.
That's not to say that there's no difference at all between #2 and #3. There is the increasingly slim chance that it would mean entry into next year's Champions League. But with a passel of Eastern Conference teams competing for the 3rd through 5th seeds, the likelihood of a spare CCL spot dropping to Seattle in a likely 5th or lower spot is small (just under 5% for those who like the numbers). More importantly, the higher seed gets the second leg and therefore any potential overtime at home. And every thin margin helps.
But more important even than that I think is establishing some presence and confidence before a nearly certain rematch in the playoffs. The 2-0 partial comeback in the second leg of the 2011 playoffs salvaged a little bit of pride after the 3-0 first leg drubbing in Sandy, but only a little bit. The first leg performance was a collapse and RSL has to feel that they have the upper hand even in a two legged series. Especially given that Seattle has yet to score a goal against RSL in the two previous regular season games this season (though to be fair RSL has scored only once in those two matches).
The twist here, of course, is the international break and its effect on the availability of important players for both teams. For Seattle, Mario Martinez just helped Honduras thrash Canada to knock them out of World Cup qualification. Adam Johansson sat on the bench as Sweden came back from a 4-0 deficit to draw against Germany. And Eddie Johnson assisted on one of three US goals against Guatemala. The fact that Johnson's match was so near (plus the class move of the RSL organization in letting him ride on their plane) means he may even be available, though probably only if goals are desperately needed after playing nearly the full match in Kansas City.
For Real Salt Lake, both Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman are returning with Johnson. Neither played in the match, so you'd expect them both to be available. Jason Kreis has been ambiguous about their availability, but that's probably just gamesmanship. I can't imagine sitting on the bench for 90 minutes then flying on a private jet after a long break would prevent a professional athlete from playing. Especially a goalkeeper. More significantly, Alvaro Saborio played for Costa Rica and Will Johnson got crushed along with the rest of Canada, so that's two important starters who will be out.
Given the absences and RSL's tactical consistency I won't bother with an average position map. We know they'll play a diamond midfield with Javier Morales (not to be confused with Mauro Rosales!) at the point behind Fabian Espindola and likely Paulo Jr. The absence of Saborio will give the Seattle center backs some relief, but Espindola is no less dangerous.
For Seattle, things may shift more. The facial injury to Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and the apparent training injury to Patrick Ianni mean that Zach Scott may migrate from replacing right back to replacing center back, leaving the right to Brad Evans. That opens up the left mid spot (our deepest position even with Martinez gone) for Steve Zakuani or David Estrada. With Marc Burch almost certainly replacing Leo Gonzalez at left back, that could mean the offensive focus becomes more balanced. Seattle is heavily reliant on the Johansson/Rosales combination on the right to create open crosses and the left side has recently been relegated to back post runs and deep crosses from Gonzalez. Of course the danger of emphasizing more offense from the left is compromising the defense, which might be an argument for Estrada, who has more defensive bite than Zakuani at this point.
The central axis of Christian Tiffert and Osvaldo Alonso is intact and if Beckerman really doesn't play Seattle should be able to dominate the midfield to provide service out to the wings or to a withdrawn Fredy Montero.
A win here makes Seattle favorites for the #2 spot — being tied with RSL with a game in hand — and all but shuts the door on the LA Galaxy's hopes to climb into the top 3. But more importantly it lays down a marker and establishes momentum for a very likely rematch in two and a half weeks.