Two Western Conference powers will meet Saturday night at Rio Tinto Stadium when Real Salt Lake hosts the Seattle Sounders in the first leg of their Western Conference semifinal. The Sounders have been superb this season, winning their third Lamar Hunt US Open Cup in a row. They are also motivated to give retiring goalkeeper Kasey Keller a domestic double as a send off.
Apart from the motivation, the Sounders are a very talented team. Keller remains one of MLS’ top goalkeepers at age 41 and proved it during the season with a collection of highlight reel saves. The team conceded just thirty-seven goals while racking up a league high fifty-six, so Keller had plenty of support. With Jhon Kennedy Hurtado restored to the defense, the team has a formidable physical presence to go with the stability of James Riley, Jeff Parke, and Leo Gonzalez.
The Sounders midfield does not overawe with tricky moves or complicated tactics. They move well and fight hard for possession. If Argentine Mauro Rosales is fit to play on Saturday, they will have the perfect counterweight to RSL’s Javier Morales. However, even if those two players cancel each other out or are marked heavily, the Sounders have a second threat in Uruguayan Alvaro Fernandez. He scored eleven goals in all competitions this year and looks more settled than in 2010 when he arrived fresh off Uruguay’s stunning World Cup run.
Fredy Montero will be the key player to watch for Seattle. The Colombian forward has eighteen goals this year and has looked very sharp. Coach Sigi Schmid has a number of options at the second forward spot. Nate Jaqua used to be more of an automatic choice, but the quickness and set piece delivery of Mike Fucito earned quite a bit of playing time this year and rookie Sammy Ochoa scored twice after joining the club late in the season.
The Sounders have a deep and battle tested roster that has played a lot of games this year. In addition to MLS and US Open Cup games, they also secured a quarterfinal berth in the CONCACAF Champions League in six grueling games across four countries. Few of their players have had the additional burden of national team appearances though. As a result, they may actually be the fresher team.
Real Salt Lake played their additional CONCACAF games in the spring when they went to the final and came close to winning. Since then, they have suffered a kind of hangover. They were not the juggernaut, challenging the Galaxy in the Western Conference that everybody expected. Javier Morales only played in ten games and his absence left a void in the team that nobody filled.
Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola remain one of the top striking tandems in MLS. They combined for twenty-one goals and five assists, but the drop-off in goals after that is sharp. The key to beating RSL is cutting off the supply to the forwards. That’s where Morales’ absence hurt. The team finished ten points behind the Sounders after failing to win any of their last six games.
Kyle Beckerman’s return from a three match ban will bolster the midfield and lift the team’s confidence. He will need Will Johnson and Andy Williams to help contain Seattle’s forward thrust. Coach Jason Kreis will probably opt for Williams as a more offensive option for the home leg and then make a call on the away leg depending on the result.
RSL’s defense remains solid if less than colorful. Nat Borchers marshals a group that had one of the stingiest records in the league. With Nick Rimando in goal, they have veteran leadership in abundance. However, Chris Wingert and Robbie Russell could be exploited on the flanks, especially if they do not have sufficient midfield support from Johnson or more likely the aging Williams. That will make the task harder.
In spite of playing more games than any other MLS team, Seattle still looks fresh and motivated. They won four of their last five and will have massive home support for the second leg. That makes them a solid favorite to advance.