Seattle Sounders FC and reigning MLS Cup champion Real Salt Lake, two teams currently demonstrating winning ways, clash in a late-season Western Conference showdown Thursday night before a national television audience and capacity crowd on the Xbox Pitch at Qwest Field. First kick is 8 p.m. PT with the match telecast live on ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes.
Undefeated in its last four games against Western Conference foes, the Rave Green seeks its fourth straight home win before beginning an odyssey of four road matches being played in three nations over 12 days.
Real Salt Lake will be returning to the site of its most glorious night. That occurred last November 22 when it prevailed over the L.A. Galaxy in a shoot-out to claim its first MLS Cup.
Sounders FC has compiled a 9-9-5 mark for 32 points in league play. The team stands 12-11-7 overall. It has recently been on domestic tear, losing only once with a glossy 7-1-2 mark in 10 games. The next phase of matches will prove challenging as well as seasonally pivotal.
The next two MLS games come against defending champion RSL and the Columbus Crew, winner of the last two Supporters' Shields and Coach Sigi Schmid’s former team. The resumption of CONCACAF Champions League adds three more matches this month. There will be over 13,000 air miles flown across the U.S. and Central America by the time Seattle returns home after playing in Chicago on September 25.
Last week the Sounders experienced mixed emotions. First came the high notes as Seattle continued its march through the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, bringing the Cup Final to the Emerald City October 5 by beating Chivas USA, 3-1, in Tukwila, Wash., Wednesday night.
Three days later in New England, the Sounders hit a speed bump to terminate the team’s recent unbeaten string with its first MLS defeat in two months. Seattle fell 3-1 to the Revolution.
Real Salt Lake holds an impressive 12-4-7 MLS mark with 43 points. It won its last match 1-0 at home against New York, tying the record of 22 consecutive unbeaten home games. Owner of an MLS best plus-21 goal differential, RSL has been more vulnerable on the road, going 3-4-4 and drawing in its last three matches.
Both teams have rebounded from slow starts. Real Salt Lake, after winning just one of its first five, has gone 11-1-6 since April. Not until July did the Sounders FC catch fire, going 5-1-2 in its last eight outings.
Seattle seeks its first MLS win over Real since the second game of its inaugural season. The league series is tied at 1-1-1 after the sides finished even at 2-2 in Real Salt Lake's 2010 home opener April 10. Although separated by a time zone and 691 miles, for now Salt Lake is Seattle's closest MLS neighbor. This will change next year with both Vancouver British Columbia and Portland joining the league.
The Utah side is second in the Western Conference, just one point behind the Galaxy and Crew in the Supporters' Shield race. Seattle is tied for fifth in the West but is currently in position to grab a wild card playoff slot.
Each team will get the weekend off before playing Champions League dates to begin next week. Sounders FC visits Costa Rica's CD Saprissa on September 14 and RSL hosts Canadian champion Toronto FC September 15.
Seattle returns to MLS play September 19 at Columbus. The two sides will meet again 16 days later in the U.S. Open Cup Final October 5. Tickets for that match went on sale Tuesday at 10 a.m. PT.
Following Tuesday’s workout at the team’s Tukwila, Wash., training facility Coach Schmid commented on Real Salt Lake as well as other current matters.
“Their style is really the same [as it was in the first meeting] in terms of how they pinch their midfielders,” Schmid said concerning the Utah team. “I think [Alvaro] Saborio has become a bigger part of their team at this stage.
“Early in the season he was working his way into the team. Now he has definitely become their target, lead striker. [Fabian] Espindola and him have formed a good combination, so [Robbie] Findley plays a little bit less. But obviously he is dangerous off the bench. They are really a similar type of team except it’s given them time to gel with Saborio.”
On the subject of Tuesday’s training session, Schmid exclaimed, “We wanted to get some things done today, for sure. We wanted to continue to work on our ball movement. That was the first drill that we did where we quartered the field.
“We wanted to get some finishing done, so we got that. We wanted to remind our defenders about clearances because we thought our inability or poor clearance for sure cost us the third goal (Saturday against New England), so we wanted to work on that. And 5 v 5 goals in tight, I think if you ask any player that’s just fun. It’s intense but it’s fun.”
The Sounders’ mentor addressed the pivotal period of Saturday night’s match against New England when three goals were conceded in eleven minutes, eliminating a 1-0 Seattle lead and ultimately costing the team the match.
“I think through 60 minutes we had the game pretty much in hand and then we woke up the sleeping dog,” Schmid said. “ … When the incident occurred between [Patrick] Ianni and Shalrie [Joseph] and then later the push on [Fredy] Montero, which looked worse because he went flying into the board, Montero had been pushed like that a couple times already by [Kevin] Alston and nothing (had happened), at that point I think it energized them.
“It motivated them, put them back into the game mentally and then we gave up a bad first goal. We cleared one off the line just moments earlier and then they get the same throw-in, same position, we make the same mistake and they end up scoring a goal. That’s what we are displeased with.”
Schmid was philosophical about Seattle’s seven-game MLS unbeaten streak being halted:
“We have to look at the body of our work. You can’t get hung up with just one particular incident. This is just one game and we came out on the short end of this game. But over the last two months the body of our work has been pretty good.
“Since July 4 on it has been very good. Now we have got to continue to get back to that. We know we have a good team. We know that we can play well. We just got to get right back on the horse and ride out on the field again and make it happen.”