The Seattle Sounders had two main goals when they paid Chivas USA a visit on Saturday with nothing to play for standings-wise: work Mauro Rosales back into the lineup and get out healthy. Somewhere else in the list of priorities was finally beating Chivas USA at Home Depot Center and heading into the playoffs on a roll.
Despite the Sounders winning 3-1 and generally looking good doing it, the game was far from a ringing success. Rosales was stretchered off the field following a hard tackle by Ben Zemanski, and although postgame comments made it sound like it might not be serious, we still don't know for sure. Even if he's perfectly fine, the Sounders will still go into the playoffs with Rosales having played just 32 minutes since Sept. 17. Clearly this was not the best-case scenario they were hoping for.
What we do know now is that the Sounders will face Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference semifinals. The series will open at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 29 at 7:30 p.m. with a likely return leg on Wednesday, Nov. 2 at 8 p.m.
The Sounders and RSL split a pair of games this year, with each team winning 2-1 on the road. This is probably not a great matchup for either team, but the Sounders are undeniably in a better run of form.
Since the last time the Sounders and RSL met, their seasons have gone in opposite directions. The win over the Sounders was the third of what would eventually become a five-game winning streak, but that has been followed by six straight games without a win in which RSL has gone 0-4-2. During those six games, RSL has been outscored 13-3.
Recent struggles aside, the Sounders should expect quite a fight. Javier Morales has come back from injury well enough to log 350 minutes in his past four matches, Kyle Beckerman will be back from his suspension and the defense had gone just over 180 scoreless minutes before the Portland Timbers equalized in stoppage time on Saturday.
The Sounders should feel good about coming off their best performance since Rosales first went down with his injury. Their three goals were the most they've scored in a game since Sept. 17 and if not for Victor Estupinan's 83rd minute goal, this would have been their first shutout in a MLS game since then as well.
As he has been doing most of the second half of the season, Fredy Montero played a big role in getting the Sounders the win. It was his play that got the Sounders their first goal, even if he won't get credit. His ability to control the James Riley's pass was what forced the own-goal. Montero did get on the stat sheet with a nifty assist to Sammy Ochoa for the Sounders' third goal. The Sounders got their other goal from Alvaro Fernandez from a Brad Evans pass.
The win gives the Sounders 18 wins, tied for the second most in the post-shootout era. Their 63 points are the third most since 1999. In so many ways, this has been a benchmark year for the Sounders.
But for many, the success or failure of this season will be determined by what happens against RSL. Advancing to the conference finals would be a first for the Sounders, and anything less will understandably leave an empty feeling. Whether or not the Sounders have a healthy Rosales will likely make a difference, but it won't be an acceptable excuse. The path to Home Depot Center is now clear, even if it's fraught with peril. Now the fun really starts.