The last time Real Salt Lake visited Seattle, they left with a title befitting their name: Kings of MLS.
Of course, there were plenty who didn't see them as rightful occupiers of that thrown.
Not only did RSL become the first No. 8 seed to win the MLS Cup, but they also became the first major American sports league champion to finish the regular season with a losing record (11-12-7). RSL made the playoffs on the final day of the season by beating Colorado and advancing via goal-differential tiebreaker. That was one of two wins Real Salt Lake had in the final two months of the seasons. They then advanced to the finals via penalty tiebreaker and beat the Galaxy in another penalty tiebreaker.
While RSL earned all the literal representations of MLS royalty -- rings, patches and, of course, a trophy -- a more figurative symbol eluded them: respect.
Whether it was media personalities, fans or opposing players, many refused to acknowledge RSL as a deserving champion.
As odd as it may seem, RSL's run at this year's Supporter's Shield may be changing all of that.
"They really got themselves together at the end of last season, which is a little bit strange about the U.S. system as compared to the European system," Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller said. "Whether good or bad on however you look at it, a team can get hot and win the title, as opposed to being so bad at the beginning of the season that you've got no chance to catch back up. But that could work out for us this year.
"They have proven this year that they are legitimate for what they accomplished at the end of last year."
RSL's latest victory over the New York Red Bulls extended their home unbeaten streak to an MLS-record tying 22 matches (Seattle's 2-2 tie at Rio Tinto on April 10 was their closest call since May 16, 2009) and moved them to within a point of the Supporter's Shield lead. The win also continued a run in which RSL has lost just once since April 24, a run of success that has seen them claim 39 points in 18 matches.
It's not just their record that has been impressive, either. RSL has reached 43 points through 23 matches by scoring the most goals in MLS (37) and allowing the fewest (16). They have managed this while playing an attractive style that puts an emphasis on moving the ball quickly through the midfield and feeding a st able of capable forwards.
At the middle of it all is Javier Morales, who has established himself as a leading MVP candidate while rebounding nicely from a bit of a down year last year. Morales has already tied a MLS career high with six goals to go along with six assists and a personal +/- of 18, tied for the league lead among offensive players.
Morales has essentially evolved into a classic CAM with Kyle Beckerman assuming most of the midfield's defensive responsibilities and a rotation of Andy Williams, Will Johnson and Ned Grabavoy ably holding down the wing play. Morales has thrived in the role since moving there permanently about a third of the way through last season, establishing himself as both a capable scorer and one of the league's best distributors.
Making sure those distribution skills don't go to waste has been the trio of Fabian Espindola (six goals), Robbie Findley (five goals) and Alvaro Saborio (eight goals). Although the Sounders will likely catch a break with Espindola expected to miss tonight's game (Grabavoy will also be absent) , RSL will still have a pair of players with numerous international caps in Findley (10 with the U.S.) and Saborio (55 with Costa Rica).
Saborio is the only player in this offensive core who was not with the team last year. Saborio has scored 12 goals across all competitions and given RSL a physical presence they had previously lacked.
Luckily, the Sounders have a defensive player that is quite familiar with Saborio.
Left back Leo Gonzalez has played alongside Saborio on the Costa Rican national team for four years and also played against him while their Costa Rican professional league careers overlapped from 2001-2006.
"Playing against other great players is something that is really great and it's motivating," Gonzalez said through an interpretor. "But you really shouldn't just focus on one player, you have to look at the whole team. This particular player is dangerous and he's somebody that we should keep an eye on."
On the rare occasion a ball gets past him, his teammates have proven capable of bailing him out. Twice against the Red Bulls, for instance, teammates came to Rimando's rescue by clearing balls off the line. Coincidentally, both opportunities came off corners.
Helping keep those kind of heroics to a minimum is a group that has established itself as one of the best in the league. Chris Wingert (+21), Nat Borchers (+21), Robbie Russell (+18) and Jamison Olave (+18) are all among the league leaders is plus/minus. Even with Olave missing tonight's game with yellow-card accumulation, RSL is able to bring in a player, Rauwshan McKenzie, who has compiled a +6 in just 106 minutes (that's a 5.8 +/- per 90).
While the Sounders recognize they'll have their work cut out for them, they can also draw inspiration from RSL, a team that proved it's not how you start the season, it's how you finish it.
"Getting into the playoffs is good enough," Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. "It’s like you can’t date the prettiest girl at the dance unless you get invited to the dance. So it doesn’t matter if you’re the last one at the dance or the first one there, you still have a shot.
"For us, it’s the same thing. Just getting to the playoffs is what we need to do, what we want to do. We are not that concerned with positioning or matchups or who we are going to play. After that, it’s just a matter of making sure we play a good game at home and that we play one really, really, really solid game on the road and we can get ourselves into the MLS Cup Final."