The Sounders FC will finish off a stretch of five matches in 15 days on Saturday, but may face their toughest test to date when they meet Real Salt Lake at CenturyLink Field.
And while they may be nursing some injuries and sore bodies after the rigorous schedule, Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid says his players will be as prepared as ever for the match.
“If you can’t get motivated for this next game, maybe you’re not alive,” he said.
Real Salt Lake tops the table with 23 points through 12 matches, going 7-3-2. Seattle and San Jose, who are tied for second with 22 points, have played nine and 10 matches, respectively.
Their matches over the last three years have never lacked for drama, as the teams have split their eight meetings at 3-3-2.
That includes RSL shocking the Sounders with a stoppage time equalizer at Rio Tinto Stadium in 2010 and the Sounders responding the following season with a 2-1 comeback win to halt Salt Lake’s 29-match home unbeaten streak.
That doesn’t even begin to account for their playoff duel last year. Salt Lake blistered the Sounders with a 3-0 defeat in the first leg at Rio Tinto, but the Sounders responded with a performance that was equally dominating on the field, but not on the scoreboard and lost the series 3-2 on aggregate.
It’s made for a bit of rivalry between two teams that have been among the best in the league since 2009, with Seattle second in total points with 180 and Salt Lake third at 172.
“Anytime you have two good teams playing each other who want to compete for the top of the table, there’s always going to be a little bit of rivalry,” Schmid said.
They also come in as the two of the hottest teams in MLS. Seattle is riding a five-game winning streak – unbeaten at 5-0-1 in their last six – and RSL is unbeaten at 2-0-2 in their last four.
“This is how we want it. We want a winning mentality and everyone has it,” midfielder Mauro Rosales said. “Everybody is ready for every game. We are aware of our condition and we are in a very good run of winning games to give us the confidence that we need. But this isn’t the end of the season. It’s just the beginning, so we have to keep going.”
Both teams have seen success even while battling injuries. Most notably, both teams lost the services of key midfielders to long-term injuries last season when Steve Zakuani fractured his right leg and Javier Morales fractured his left ankle.
They have both shown acumen for playing a deep bench in 2012, too. Twenty-one different players have started for Seattle through nine matches while 18 have started for RSL through 12 games.
While Morales is out for Real Salt Lake with a quad injury suffered in their 0-0 draw with the Chicago Fire on Wednesday, the Sounders will look to bring midfielder Alvaro Fernandez back into the lineup after a quad strain knocked him out of the last five matches.
“I feel good. I’m ready to go, but it will be a technical decision that they will make at game time,” said Fernandez, who had two assists in four matches before the injury. “I love that whoever is called in to play does a great job. I’m looking forward to hopefully getting back in there and doing the same thing.”
Schmid is unsure if he will use Fernandez in a starting role or reserve role, though, as he looks at this match as a bit of a battle of attrition for the Sounders, with a week between this match and another stretch of three matches in eight days starting with a road test against the Vancouver Whitecaps on May 19.
“We’re trying to see who feels healthy today to determine it,” Schmid said after training on Friday. “The guys know this is the last game of this stretch, then we start another stretch where we play three games. They’re aware of that and I think that psychologically helps them get over that final hurdle.”
Kickoff is slated for 7 pm with live coverage on KING 5 television and the radio broadcast on 97.3 KIRO FM.