I feel like I've written 'this is the Sounders hardest X game left this season' a lot in the last few weeks, where X is 'road' or 'home' or 'group stage' or whatever. It's a sign that the difficulty of the Seattle regular season peaked in a brutal July and August stretch that featured two games against a dangerous FC Dallas, a match in Monterrey, and matchups with the Colorado Rapids, the LA Galaxy, and a Cascadia derby match at Jeld-Wen field. And I'm going to do it again. Tomorrow's match against Real Salt Lake is probably the hardest remaining on the Seattle calendar, even as a home game. The Lakers haven't been quite as dominant recently as they had been over 18 months or so, with the loss of Javier Morales to a long injury and defeat in the CCL final to Monterrey seemingly taking them off their game. But they're still very talented and very dangerous and they will certainly have revenge on their mind after Seattle ended their record 29 game home unbeaten streak in the reverse fixture.
Even with this match on the schedule, our stats show Seattle neck-and-neck with the New York Red Bulls for the softest last couple of months of the season. After this match, the Seattle regular season schedule features a freefalling playoff team in the Philadelphia Union, two borderline playoff teams in Chivas USA and DC United, and 3 of the 4 weakest teams in the league. The toughest game left on paper after tomorrow might be the regular season finale at Chivas. Of course, you can't take anything for granted in a high parity league like MLS and nobody should be resting on their laurels, but there's really no reason for Seattle to do anything other than throw every resource they have at tomorrow's match and treat it like the season's on the line.
The same can't be said of Real Salt Lake. MLS gave them a thin early season schedule to help them in the elimination stages of the CCL — a ploy that almost worked — but they're giving the devil his due in the final months. They were one of the few teams in MLS that played during the international break and won't have over a week of rest coming into this weekend. They have 9 remaining games in the season and our stats show them as having the 2nd hardest average difficulty in the league. It includes games at the Los Angeles Galaxy, at the New York Red Bulls, and at the Colorado Rapids, as well as a regular season finale at home against the Portland Timbers, who may be scrapping for a final playoff position at the time. Combine that brutal schedule with the loss of Morales and the additional international duty of key players Will Johnson and Kyle Beckerman and you'll be seeing a much more human RSL than we may be used to.
Last time these teams met, both had a sprawling injury report. Seattle has mostly healed up in the interim, while Salt Lake is still carrying an extensive list of injuries. But a big chunk of it is a list of Probables who we expect to play, including Nick Rimando, Alvaro Saborio, Fabian Espindola, and Ned Grabavoy. Johnson also shows up as a Probable, though he just played 90 minutes for Canada, which means both that he probably isn't really that injured and that he might be pulled to get some rest.
In their last match against the Union, RSL played in their now very familiar 4-diamond-2 which they use to dominate the central midfield and play a short passing game. The loss of Morales at the top of the diamond has been a big blow and they've relied on 17-year-old Luis Gil as the attacking pivot as well as a more offensive game from Kyle Beckerman, as you saw with the rocket of a 25 yard shot he put past Faryd Mondragon on a short corner last week. Both of their goals came from set pieces actually, as the other was a towering header from center back Chris Schuler on another corner.
It's a testament to how good the Sounders have been offensively that they can lead the league in goals despite a subpar year from Fredy Montero and the total absence of a consistent partner for him up top. Most of this season the Sounders have effectively played a 4-5-1 with an arsenal of big bodied reserves bumping around 25 yards from goal trying to settle the ball for him. The revelation that is Mauro Rosales on the right wing and an effective combination of Alvaro Fernandez and Lamar Neagle on the left have served to work around that problem as well as a lack of significant offensive help from either Brad Evans or Erik Friberg in the middle. You can only imagine how dangerous this team will be if and when Mike Fucito and Montero meld into an experienced forward tandem. After the abuse Fucito put on RSL centerback Jamison Olave in their last matchup and the blood he left on the pitch at Starfire, you can expect him to have an impact tomorrow.
- Beckerman vs Brad Evans - Beckerman covers enough ground as a holding midfielder that he sometimes seems to take on the entire opposition's midfield himself, which allowed Morales (and now Gil) the freedom to move forward. The Sounders need to control the middle to clog up the RSL attack and prevent Beckerman from becoming a factor in the offense. That depends on lateral movement of the ball and quick, accurate passing between Osvaldo Alonso and his midfield partner, who I'm projecting here to be Evans, but could just as well be Friberg.
- Fucito vs Olave - Remember this matchup? Fucito got the Lakers' star center defender sent off in their meeting in May by getting behind him and forcing a foul that earned Olave a red card for denying a goal scoring opportunity. Olave and his likely partner Nat Borchers will be more equipped to deal with a larger forward than with the speed of Fucito and the technical ability of Montero. This may be an ideal deployment of the small/small pairing up top.
- Fernandez vs Robbie Russell - Russell is a tremendous player, but he's 32 years old. The Sounders winger should be able to find space around him, especially if Beckerman is cheating to the left to help deal with Rosales. Cutting in to the midfield will help draw Olave and Borchers which will open up even more space for the Seattle forwards.