By FRANCO PANIZO
If the Seattle Sounders are to finally get over the playoff hump in 2012, they will have to do so against a stacked team that not only went undefeated against them this season, but also eliminated them from the postseason last year.
After being trounced from the Western Conference semifinals at the hands of Real Salt Lake in 2011, the Sounders are once again set to take on Jason Kreis’ men in the same stage of the postseason. The bitter feeling of that elimination is still in the minds of some of the Seattle players, but they will need to forget about the past if they are to oust RSL.
On top of knocking off Seattle last year, Real Salt Lake went undefeated against the Sounders this year, posting a 1-0-2 record. The difference between the two teams may not seem like much but Real Salt Lake appear to have a mental advantage of Sigi Schmid’s team, not to mention how much more experienced they are in playoffs games and situations.
Seattle, however, currently has a more potent attack than in years prior. Eddie Johnson has fit in perfectly with the club and added another dimension, but just how effective he can be is unknown after he suffered a hamstring strain last week.
Here is a breakdown of the Western Conference semifinal series:
REAL SALT LAKE vs. SEATTLE SOUNDERS
First leg at CenturyLink Field: Friday, 10 p.m., NBC Sports
Second leg at Rio Tinto Stadium: Thursday, 9:30 p.m., MLS Live
SEASON SERIES: The two Western Conference heavyweights squared off three times this season, and the Sounders were unable to beat RSL in any of them. Real Salt Lake took the first match, 1-0, on the road on May 12 before the two teams settled for scoreless draws on July 4 at Rio Tinto Stadium and on Oct. 17 at CenturyLink Field.
KEY PLAYERS – REAL SALT LAKE: M Kyle Beckerman, F Fabian Espindola, F Alvaro Saborio, GK Nick Rimando, D Jamison Olave SEATTLE SOUNDERS: F Eddie Johnson, F Fredy Montero, M Osvaldo Alonso
MATCH-UP TO WATCH– Kyle Beckerman vs. Osvaldo Alonso. Both teams have strong defenses and potent attacks, but just who wins the midfield battle will go a long way in determining who comes out on top in this series. It is for that reason that the onus is on Beckerman and Alonso, two hard-nosed veterans, to win the midfield battle for their respective team.
OUTLOOK – Both teams enter the postseason after putting together solid results in October. Real Salt Lake did not suffer a loss in their three matches last month, and they also conceded just one goal during that stretch despite playing with a makeshift defense at times because of injury.
The Sounders surely were disappointed to not have topped Real Salt Lake at home but Seattle still went 3-1-1 across all competitions last month, scoring nine goals while only giving up three in the process. Seattle is looking more dangerous on offense right now, but how Eddie Johnson performs after recovering from the injury he sustained last week could play a big role in how productive the Sounders are.
PREDICTION – Both teams are traditionally strong at home, but it would not be a major shock to see either win as visitors. Real Salt Lake’s core players do have the experience of having gone through the rigors of the postseason on multiple occasions, but their defense looks too battered and bruised to hold off Seattle in this series. The Sounders will take a 1-0 victory over RSL at CenturyLink Field before sealing the deal with a 1-1 draw at Rio Tinto Stadium that will push them through on aggregate.
How do you see the Sounders-Real Salt Lake series playing out? Think Johnson’s injury will prove costly for the Sounders? Convinced RSL is ready to make another run at the MLS Cup?
Share your thoughts below.