Fortune favors the Seattle Sounders as they have the opportunity to put themselves ahead of Real Salt Lake on the first tie breaker with even just a tie. In the last meeting Seattle ended the Utah side's home unbeaten streak, which should be good news when facing a team that is poor on the road (12 points in 11 matches). The Sounders may not be the best home team in the league, but they are still strong (25 points in 13 matches) and are scoring 2 goals a game on average in home MLS play.
While Seattle was able to rest with only one player (Terry Boss) appearing in international play over the break RSL played a game and had four players appearing for their national teams. To complicate the Salt Lake attempt at a late season run on the Friday Injury report they list 4 players OUT, 1 DOUBTFUL, 1 QUESTIONABLE and 7 PROBABLE. Sigi Schmid will have a fuller selection with 4 OUT and no other injuries. The Royals of Utah do have the Castrol Index' best player so far, but let's remember that this is the same Jamison Olave that struggled to defend Mike Fucito. Denz at www.RSLSoapBox.com answers three questions leading into this match that features two teams expected to make runs at an MLS Cup.
SaH: Real Salt Lake has managed to stay strong without Javier Morales. He's recently returned to practice, so what's the prognosis on his return?
RSLSB: I think the team adjusted to life without him over time, but losing a key playmaker is difficult on any team. He has started doing some work at practices but is still probably a month or more away from a potential return, it is really good to see him around the team and making progress. Watching a teammate get hurt like that on what was clearly a very careless and reckless play had a huge mental impact on many of the guys, so seeing him back practicing has really given a good emotional lift to the team.
SaH: While we are huge Osvaldo Alonso fans out here, Kyle Beckerman occupies similar space. While he isn't quite the defender, his passing is much stronger. Is he developing into the next Shalrie Joseph?
RSLSB: Kyle has usually played a more defensive role, more as a disruptive player in the midfield, but with no single player being able to fill the role and abilities of Javier Morales, Kyle has started to be a bit more offensive focused over the last couple months. I think when Kyle came to Salt Lake the challenge given him by Jason Kreis was to become the controlling force in the midfield, to be an on field bulldog who controlled the match by helping his team keep possession and he did just that, but Kyle has always had a great vision and this year he has been asked to help the offense. This has lead to him contributing 8 assists and 3 goals so far this season, only in 2006 did he score more goals and he has never had more assists, last year Javier Morales was overlooked in the MVP race because the team is the focus with RSL, and a shame is that we could see the same thing happen to Kyle this year.
SaH: Several younger players have worn the cobalt recently. Which of these players can step up and help Salt Lake make a playoff run?
RSLSB: We have seen Luis Gil (17 yrs old) step up over the last couple months, in large part ahead of the pace RSL wanted to bring him along at, but he has thrived and seems to really be adjusting quickly to the level MLS is played at. We have seen Paulo Jr.(22 yrs old) finally get back to being able to play after dealing with a hamstring injury that plagued him for months, he was a real spark last year in limited minutes and the team had planned on using him a lot more before the injury. In under 300 minutes of action he already has 2 goals and 3 assists, with his combination of speed and his nose for goal he will be a player who will really be able to be a difference maker as the season heads towards the playoffs.
Then there are two guys that very few people are talking about but could do some interesting things as they get some playing minutes, first is Cody Arnoux (23 yrs old) who RSL won the rights to in a lottery earlier this year. He comes to RSL from a stint with the Everton reserves and barring the injury he suffered and is now almost back to full health from, who knows what the future might have held for him, but I think he will be a player who could catch a lot of teams off guard in the final couple months of the season. Then there is Chris Agorsor (21 yrs old), who joined RSL after being released from the Philadelphia Union, and while he is still a work in progress he brings pace that few people in the league can match. On the RSL roster there are 13 players 24 years old or younger, and this year we have seen a lot of them step up but for me it has been Luis Gil who has done the most with his opportunity and if I had to pick one guy who might be a real factor in the playoffs it would be him.
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RSLSB: Well the 3rd year seems to be when Sigi is able to guide a team to great success and so far it looks as if that is the case in Seattle as well, what have been the main keys to the success the Sounders have found so far this year?
SaH: If there is one key to the Sounders this year it has been on-pitch awareness of teammates. After being around each other for nearly three years the understanding of who will be where both offensively and defensively has led to this being a such a strong team. The other note is the way the roster was constructed back when the expansion draft took place. There were a few older players taken for short term success (Marshall, Vagenas), but now the youth that was tested in 2009 is entering its prime. Fredy Montero, Osvaldo Alonso, Brad Evans, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Jeff Parke are all multi-year regulars going right up the spine of the formation, and each is basically set to be part of longer run of success.
RSLSB: Lamar Neagle has burst on the scene and while many people are focusing their attention on the incredible play of Mauro Rosales, for me the productivity of Neagle has been simply amazing this year, what is his story and what do you think he can add to the Sounders?
SaH: Neagle has an intriguing story. Under the last CBA he was a prime example of the grossly underpaid in MLS. He lived with his parents, worked other jobs and never really played. Under the suggestion of the team he left the state, all the way to the Charleston Battery, to become a better player by playing all the time. He did quite well, winning the USL-2's MVP and learning how to become a goal-scoring forward rather than a right back. Now in 2011 he's done another positional shift as he's a left winger mostly. Neagle is strongest with the ball at his feet about 25 yards out from goal. He doesn't have the speed to blast by a defender, but he'll use one or two moves to open up space and take the shot from distance. He will sometimes skip the easy pass and instead take the shot instead, but he's put 45% of his shots in MLS on frame.
RSLSB: With their 6 goals against the Crew, the Sounders have taken the lead for goals scored so far this year with 42 and 13 multiple goal matches, what has been the change this year after the team scored just 39 last year?
SaH: The biggest change has been a shift to a more technical team. Rather than booming crosses aiming at a big man's head (Nkufo, Jaqua, White) Seattle now counts on off-ball movement, dribbling skills and quick passes to open space. Additions like Mauro Rosales and Erik Friberg have improved the ball movement on the field, while using the small/small pairing of Mike Fucito and Montero up top has added speed without losing goal danger. Seattle is taking almost two more shots a game than their opposition (all competitions) and is converting at a slightly higher rate this year than previous years. Where in 2010 there would only be 3 scorers on the pitch at once, the discovery that both the left and right midfielders could be scorers at the same time has added variety to the attack as well.
RSLSB: Bonus Question - If you could take one player from the RSL roster to add to the Sounders who would it be and why?
SaH: It is still, and will always be Kyle Beckerman. A quite similar player to Osvaldo Alonso, I would love to see both on the same team and completely shutting down the midfield. Each can get forward in the attack as well, so unlike most conventional 4-4-2s it wouldn't be an empty bucket, but more a double pivot. Beckerman's passing skills are shining this season and are probably the reason he's getting opportunities with the National Team.