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Sounders vs Real Salt Lake: Three Questions

Both teams are fighting for their playoff lives, but only one is on good form heading towards the second season.

Seattle Sounders vs. Real Salt Lake: Photos Mike Russell/Sounder at Heart

There are paths to the playoffs that do not involve a win for Seattle Sounders or for Real Salt Lake. Both teams would much rather not have to worry about the scoreboard in the Vancouver-Portland and KC-San Jose matches. Seattle and Salt Lake are tied together in several ways. Garth Lagerwey’s imprint is on both teams. RSL won their MLS Cup here. Neither side is satisfied with their performance in 2016, and both could go on a run in the MLS Cup Playoffs.

ESPN picked this match as their featured game to end the regular season because both teams play exciting soccer. They play hard without violence. There is a rivalry earned not by proximity, but through ambition, performance and the hunt for trophies.

Matt from RSL Soapbox answers Three Questions. May this not be the last Three Questions of 2016.

SaH: What happened to the offense and can RSL fix it this week?

RSLSB: The short answer: I don't know, and I don't think so.

Thankfully, the longer answer has a bit more nuance and optimism to it. It's obvious by now that Real Salt Lake has been profligate in front of goal, but it's equally obvious that we have an extremely talented front line — in fact, there shouldn't be much doubt about the talent on this team in general. We were one of the best teams around the two-thirds point of the season. Since then? The attack has been on a slide.

What happened, then? That's the biggest mystery. Sure, there were injuries here and there, but that's no different than the rest of the season. With that such an unknown, it's hard to imagine there's just a fix waiting in the wings. Might the team find their scoring again? Maybe. Hopefully. But it won't be a long-term solution, and it won't make any of us feel better about an impending playoff run, if it comes.

SaH: Is the best way to beat Sunday/Kyle to go around them or through the middle?

RSLSB: It's neither, really — it's to go over them with a quick pass after a turnover. Our midfield — when it's not Beckerman-Sunny, which has been the case too often — is extremely vulnerable to a turnover in the middle third. That's equally the case with the forward line. One or two quick passes to someone with great creative ability (not that you have anyone like that, right?) and you've beat the midfield. It's that easy.

SaH: Do you expect to play Seattle in the play-in round midweek?

RSLSB: You know? I wouldn't mind that. You might not find it surprising that I'd love it if one of Sporting Kansas City and Portland Timbers missed out. I suspect you might be in the same boat. Do I expect it, though? Not really. Right now, I'm expecting the worst. We've had a knack of finding the worst over the last six matches.

RSLSB: You're sort of the polar opposite of Real Salt Lake right now, and you're peaking at the right time. Does that give you confidence heading into this match?

SaH: At home, with Schmetzer in charge and a return to decent health this team should be confident. At the same time, it's not as good as it could be. There are only two attacking threats and too many players play right on the edge between fouling and earning cautions. This is a match that the Sounders have to win in order to show that not only can they make the playoffs, they can win in them. The 7-2-4 +7 record only has one win over a sure-fire playoff team (though beating RSL, Portland and Vancouver will be why they make the playoffs if they do so). That's a good sign for the play-in round. They need to be better starting Sunday and lasting into December if their dreams are to come true.

RSLSB: Is Lodeiro really the only reason you've improved so much? That's the popular narrative right now, but it seems like there's something missing.

SaH: Nicolas Lodeiro definitely helped the people around him get better. He's not the only reason the team is winning. Just hours before Nico came to Seattle the Sounders let Sigi go. Switching to Brian Schmetzer unlocked passion in players that had lost it. Schmetz has them believing in themselves and owning their own performances. His starting lineups only change based on availability, not on fitness or form. That has helped team performance, while also showing up as exhaustion in short weeks. Being as close to out of the playoff hunt as he could be he needed several wins quickly. His lineups earned that for him and for themselves. Some older players that appeared to stop listening to Schmid do listen to Schmetzer. The tactical differences show up more in attitude, as Schmetzer is using a simpler 4-2-3-1 where Lodeiro and the other central mids decide when and how the team will press in defense. By keeping the tactical side simple Schmetzer can emphasize effort and attitude. He's fixed both of those.

RSLSB: What's the biggest weakness Real Salt Lake could exploit in an effort to make the playoffs? Does it give you pause for thought?

SaH: The Sounders are struggling to defend counters that come through wide spaces. Neither Tyrone Mears nor Joevin Jones are the best defenders. When either of them get forward one of Roldan or Alonso needs help to cover that space and ideally the wide mid will provide a bit of defensive help. If not that means that the speedsters of MLS are o 1-on-1 against Chad Marshall or Roman Torres. Those are two excellent defenders, but neither are fleet of foot. Plata worries me a bit in this scenario. He doesn't have the speed of Diaz, but his footwork is as strong. Plus, it will be fun to look at one of the smallest players in the league going up against two of the largest - worrying, but fun.

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