The MLS Cup Playoffs don’t begin until early November, but the Sounders FC matches will begin to take on a playoff atmosphere beginning Saturday when they meet the San Jose Earthquakes at CenturyLink Field in a collision between the top two teams in the Western Conference.
San Jose has the top record in Major League Soccer at 17-6-6 (57 points), while Seattle sits second in the West at 13-6-9 (48 points). The match Saturday will go a long way toward determining whether or not the Sounders will be able to contend with the Earthquakes for the Supporters’ Shield for the best regular season record and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
“I think for us to make any run at the Supporters’ Shield we need to win this game on Saturday,” Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid said.
“You always want to win these games,” added forward Fredy Montero. “It’s going to be like a playoff game. It will be a battle and we are ready to win.”
The Sounders have fallen twice to San Jose in their MLS meetings this season, dropping a 1-0 match at CenturyLink Field on March 31 with a penalty kick being the difference in the match and a 2-1 match at Buck Shaw Stadium on August 11 when the teams traded goals in stoppage time.
The late-game heroics were nothing new for the Earthquakes, who have scored 19 of their league-leading 60 goals in the final 15 minutes of the match. Of those, eight have come in second-half stoppage time, with seven of them coming to either win or draw the match.
“There’s an energy that they bring into the game in the last 15 minutes,” Schmid said. “There’s a belief that they have now and a confidence that they have which comes from winning games like that.”
For all the qualities that have made them the top team in MLS through most of the 2012 season, the Sounders don’t feel at all overmatched going into Saturday’s clash.
Seattle has the second-ranked defense in the league, allowing 29 goals in 28 matches. They are also a team on a good run of form. They are unbeaten at 5-0-2 in their last seven matches across all competitions and are 11-1-6 in their last 18 overall. That stretch includes five wins in the CONCACAF Champions League and Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, one of which came over San Jose at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco.
“It’s a big game, but I’m not worried about San Jose at all,” said goalkeeper Michael Gspurning. “They are a good team and they have used the momentum of their season, but we have quality and we’ve proved that in the MLS and we have proved this in the Open Cup and we have proved this in the Champions League.”
One challenge for the Sounders on Saturday will be playing without Eddie Johnson, as their top-scorer with 13 goals will be serving a one-match suspension for yellow card accumulation after receiving a caution in Seattle’s 1-1 draw with the Portland Timbers last week.
However, the team will not change their approach with Johnson out of the lineup, according to Schmid.
“It doesn’t change things all that much tactically because the key for us is to keep the ball moving,” he said.
Schmid has several options at the forward spot alongside Montero, including Sammy Ochoa, who has scored in all three of Seattle’s Champions League group stage matches and also added a goal in his last MLS appearance, a 6-2 win over Chivas USA on August 25.
The Sounders also hope to have Christian Tiffert available and may even have Mauro Rosales as a possibility after the two midfielders have been sidelined by injuries of late.
Either way, anticipation is building at CenturyLink Field and the Sounders are eager to seal a playoff berth with a win or a draw on Saturday.
“We are all excited because it’s getting close to the playoffs and we want to succeed this year in the playoffs,” Gspurning said.
Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 pm on Saturday with television coverage on KONG 6/16 and the radio broadcast on 97.3 KIRO FM. The match was originally scheduled for Sunday, but was rescheduled to Saturday night.