In Major League Soccer's odd playoff format this is the only two leg series (tie, whatever). In order to grant the higher seed an actual advantage it hosts the second leg and a potential for overtime on its own soil. Overtime is reached if the scoreline over the two matches in the series are tied with no regard for away goals. That doesn't help the Seattle Sounders as they are clearly the better road team, but it is the way things are laid out in their contest with Real Salt Lake.
The Utah side, like Seattle, lost a top player early in the season when Javier Morales went down in that spate of early season MVP candidate injuries. Due to international call-ups and stupid Kyle Beckerman headbutt the ideal central midfield has little experience working together this season. A large part of RSL's late season slide could be attributed to the reintegration of Morales into a semi-functional lineup missing its captain. The two Claret & Cobalt stalwarts will be back for Seattle's trip to Sandy though so this series may not have the market power of LA v New York, it will instead feature two of the three best teams in MLS. Two teams stacked with players who are among the top 5 at their positions.
Denz from RSLSoapBox helps preview this first ever playoff match between two ownership groups that contended for the 2004 expansion. Considering the magnitude of importance for the first game three questions were deemed inadequate and we're going with five.
SaH: Seattle is the league's best road team while Salt Lake is the second best home team. How important is leg one to the success of RSL?
RSLSB: For RSL the home field advantage is huge, you simply have to look at the fact that RSL has only lost 6 home matches in all competitions since opening the stadium late in 2008 so playing the first leg at home could provide a huge boost for RSL who should be able to get a positive result at home and that would leave them with only needing a draw on the road. It really does make one wonder if playing the second leg at home really is an advantage or not.
This match-up was a bit odd this year as the Sounders got the win at Rio Tinto and RSL pulled out a win at CenturyLink, which could provide for a great series as both teams know they can get a result no matter where the match is played. My hope is that this will force both teams to play a very attacking match on Saturday.
SaH: What did the team learn to do differently that they can take with them now that Kyle Beckerman's back?
RSLSB: There is no doubt that the absence of Kyle Beckerman played a huge role in the recent string of RSL challenges at the end of the season, but I think over the last couple matches the team realized how much defensive work he was doing in the midfield that had allowed them to "lighten up" on their work rate, so now they remember that the whole of the team needs to be dedicated to defense first. This will allow us get back to the solid defense that the team is known for, but also benefit from knowing that Kyle is back to assist on both sides of the ball.
I think the the biggest gain RSL will get with Kyle coming back from USMNT and his suspension, will be his work on the offensive side of the ball, his 3 goals and 9 assists were a big part of RSL being able to make it back to the playoffs. His work on the defensive side of the ball is known but this year with the injury to Javier Morales, all the members of RSL's lineup had to step up to try and fill the gap but for me it was the work of Kyle to play the playmaker that perhaps played the biggest part of the success RSL had after that injury. Going forward into the post season, I expect more of the same.
SaH: Defensively which of these is Salt Lake weakest at - Direct play, crosses, tight passes, set-plays?
RSLSB: In just looking at the numbers it has been direct play that has been the greatest weakness, almost half (16 of 36) goals allowed came from direct play this year, and that is fairly standard for teams. I think beyond that the issue is with crosses which have only resulted in 6 goals this year but with RSL having to rotate their backline so much this year due to injuries and suspensions, but it is an area of concern for me. I think the simple answer is this, if you can catch the RSL defense out of position as they push forward to support the offense, that is going to be the best chance to get a goal on them.
On the other hand a real strength of the RSL defense is set pieces and corners, which have only resulted in 4 goals. I think that the size of the RSL center backs and the work of Nick Rimando in goal is what makes it hard to find goals when RSL's defense has a chance to set.
SaH: Same question but offensively what is Salt Lake best at?
RSLSB: Run of play is where the most goals have come from, but I think the most dangerous aspect of the RSL attack is set pieces and corners. Perhaps the strength of the RSL defense on set pieces is what also makes them so dangerous on the other side of the ball as well, with both centerbacks over 6'3 and Alvaro Saborio who comes in a 6'0", but whatever it is RSL has scored 9 goals off corner kicks this year, while allowing just 2. That is the biggest gap between where we score and allow goals.
SaH: What game this year made it clear that RSL had what it takes to go on a MLS Cup Playoff Run?
RSLSB: Two of them, the 4-1 win at New York and the 2-1 loss at Los Angeles. When RSL showed that they can really take advantage of the opportunities given them by scoring 4 goals against the New York Red Bulls, when RSL gets off to a good start early in the match they really can put a team on their heels in a hurry. The key to that is that they have to find a way to score off those chances, as we saw in their final match against Portland when they don't score early it leaves the door open for other teams to gather confidence, which leads to chances.
The loss against the LA Galaxy was a match where RSL should have won, it isn't often that you catch Jamison Olave and Nick Rimando making a mistake that allows a sloppy flukish goal like the one Chad Barrett scored, or that RSL will score an own goal (I believe that was the first in two seasons). So even with that match being a loss, it was one that we lost more than LA was able to win, and for me that means it is something that RSL can easily fix.
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RSLSB: Obviously the injury issues of Mauro Rosales will be huge for the Sounders, his 5 goals and 13 assists are huge numbers to have to be without. What is his status and how do the Sounders adjust if he is unable to play on Saturday?
SaH: Mauro is officially "iffy" for Saturday. If I had to bet he's probably still borderline for the 18 and they only way he comes in is if Seattle needs that one goal late to draw. Lamar Neagle is almost certain to get the start when Rosales is out and he's had a decent year to say the least. In all competitions he has 6 goals with 2 assists. He'll dive in from wide positions to shoot more, but from the left. Alvaro Fernandez (the forgotten DP) now has 11 goals and 5 assists in all competitions and will take the right. Alvaro is slower, but quite adept in dribbling and obviously a potent scorer. Losing Mauro Rosales changes the style of play and what angles are used on the left and right, what it doesn't change is the strength of the overall offense.
RSLSB: The Sounders are having an incredible year on all fronts (MLS, US Open Cup, and Champions League), it takes incredible depth to do well on so many fronts, who have been some of the guys who aren't normal starters who have made the difference this year for the team?
SaH: Sigi has rotated a ton of guys into and out of lineups. There are seven players with 5 or more goals in all competitions to include the two likely starting midfielders. Yes, Osvaldo Alonso and Brad Evans both have more than 5 goals. If Fucito starts every non-defender will have 6 or more goals in all competitions. Recently Sigi has had to find ways to get time for Sammy Ochoa as well. He hasn't had the opportunity to knock in too many goals yet, but he has all the skills and size of a conventional MLS target man without the years of abuse that his age implies.
Defensively the rotation between Tyson Wahl and Leo Gonzalez has proven that both are above average MLS left backs, one with better long service and the other a better short passer. One is a better tactical defender and the other better one-on-one. Zach Scott can be utilized in any defensive role. He's best in a shutdown role having stopped Brek Shea and Sebastien Le Toux this season.
RSLSB: So if the playoff series mirrors the regular season this match will likely go to extra time and maybe PK's do the 3 missed PK attempts by the Sounders this year concern you if the match goes to a PK shootout?
SaH: If it goes to a shootout I'm very confident in Kasey Keller. He's an American legend and in his year of retirement will be on the short list for the Keeper of the Year. I'd worry about the offense in a PK shootout but the idea that Montero isn't a good PK taker seems odd. With Evans, Alonso and Fernandez being locks to hit for goal I'm not going to over-think very limited opportunities. The last shootout Seattle was in they won, on the road, using a defender to get the winner over the Timbers.
RSLSB: What do you see as the keys to the series for the Sounders? What will they need to do in order to get their first MLS playoff win?
SaH: The Sounders are a dominant road team. Not good. Great. They are basically as good on the road as RSL is at home this year. With wins in Monterrey, Portland and Sandy they need to treat leg one just like any other game. No 'managing' the flow, just attack and play to win. They can do it. They have done it.
Specifically they'll need to open space for Montero either through speed play of Fucito/Neagle or high target play of Ochoa. When Montero sits at about 30 yards out a defense is forced to respect his potent long range shooting and close rapidly. Fredy has the vision of a #10 (11 assists on year) so he'll find the open man and hit them immediately flashing for a quick 1-2 or getting ready to slam a rebound home from the quick shot.
RSLSB: If you could take one player from the RSL roster and add them to the Sounders who would it be and why?
SaH: I still love Kyle Beckerman. A pairing of he and Alonso in the middle would be awesome. But now that Keller is about to disappear I'd take Nick Rimando as the keeper for next several years. Rimando didn't get the national team love that he probably deserved but there isn't a keeper better at reacting to unexpected shots at extreme angles, something that is a particular weakness to the Seattle defense.