Tonight’s marquee matchup between the Seattle Sounders (56 points) and Real Salt Lake (57 points) is the first of a two-leg aggregate goals MLS Cup playoff series.
It is the MLS’s newest rivalry, and tonight in CenturyLink Field in Seattle, it will be renewed once more.
This is the second consecutive year the two teams meet in the playoffs. The 2011 meeting was a riveting 3-2 victory (on aggregate) for Real Salt Lake, and the 2012 version should prove to be no different.
Real is amidst questions about the future of the franchise. Many consider this to be the final run for the team’s core group of players, but a MLS Cup championship could change all that.
They are unbeaten in their last five matches (seven including the CCL), but have been offensively anemic as of late. Real has only scored two goals in the month of October—with their final three matches ending in scoreless draws.
Lost in Chris Wondolowski’s chase for the single-season scoring record and Thierry Henry’s stellar play is the unacknowledged performance of Real forward Álvaro Saborío.
The Costa Rican national finished the season with 17 goals and three assists. He is responsible for 43 percent of the team’s offensive output, and has done so without any real assistance.
On the other side of the pitch are the Sounders. They enter today’s match looking to end their underachieving ways and advance farther than they ever have in the playoffs.
Who will advance to the Western Conference finals?
Many believe this is the year Seattle plays for their first MLS Cup, but there are lingering doubts surrounding the team.
The injury to the revitalized Eddie Johnson (adductor) could leave the Sounders without one of their talented weapons for the first leg of the series. As of now, he is still questionable for tonight’s match.
Fredy Montero (13 goals with 8 assists) has been a consistent contributor for the Sounders since his arrival in 2009, but has yet to score a playoff goal. With Johnson still questionable for the first leg of the series, Seattle must now rely on their Colombian national more than ever.
This is the fourth time the two teams will meet this season, and only one goal has been scored in the previous three matches (a 1-0 victory for Real on May 12).
Expect a heavily contested series, but one that sees Seattle advance to their first MLS Conference Finals in the only fashion suitable for these two teams—the dreaded penalty kicks.
The injury to Johnson will not be insurmountable for the Sounders. They have incredible depth at their disposal, and Sammy Ochoa, David Estrada and Steve Zakuani are sufficient replacements for the American striker.
Real central defenders Nat Borcher (quadriceps) and Jámison Olave (hamstring) are not 100 percent.
With the injury to Johnson, look for Real's defense to attempt to lock down Montero. It is a strategy that could be detrimental to their chances if they choose to overlook the ability of Ochoa and Estrada.
First Leg Prediction: Seattle Sounders 2 - 1 Real Salt Lake
Second Leg Prediction: Real Salt Lake 1 - 0 Seattle Sounders
Seattle Sounders advance 4-3 on penalty kicks
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