Sounders return to Salt Lake City with revenge on their minds

The first time the Sounders played at Rio Tinto Stadium this season it was a turning in the year.

Sounders FC @ Real Salt Lake
June 22, 2013, 6:30 pm PT; Rio Tinto Stadium; Sandy, Utah
TV/Radio: KONG 6/16; KIRO Radio 97.3 FM; KOMO2 (Spanish); La Gran D 99.3 FM (Spanish)

A lot can change in three months and the Sounders FC’s matchup with Real Salt Lake on Saturday is a prime example of that.

When the two teams first met on March 30 at Rio Tinto Stadium, the Sounders were 0-2-1 and had yet to find their identity in the new season. The first half of that match may just have triggered the discovery of that identity, though.

After what head coach Sigi Schmid called the worst half the club had played, the Sounders did some halftime soul-searching and came out strong on the other side. By halftime of that match, the Sounders had been outscored 5-1 in 315 minutes. In the 855 minutes since, the Sounders have an 18-10 scoring edge on their opponents while going 6-1-2 for the best record in MLS over the last nine matches.

“It was a wake-up call for the team. The team was aware that they didn’t play well and they had to put in a little bit more – a little more grit, a little more determination and a little more effort. That nothing happens without those things and that if you put those things in, the quality will show through,” Schmid said. “We’ve been able to add those things to our game.”

Offensively, the Sounders have been a much different team since that match. In five of their last seven matches, they’ve scored two or more goals, fueled by four goals each from Lamar Neagle and Obafemi Martins and three goals since then by Eddie Johnson.

The integration of Martins into the team has been instrumental in that turnaround. The superstar acquisition had played just 20 minutes entering that match and had just one training session with his teammates. Now mixed in with both Neagle and Johnson as strike partners, Martins has rocketed for four goals and one assist in just 374 minutes since the Salt Lake match, setting the tone – while also creating space – for his teammates.

“We’re more confident now than when we played them the last time,” Schmid said. “We’ve got some guys who feel good about putting the ball in the back of the net and that’s a situation we weren’t having.”

While there has been a clear difference on the offensive end, as their strike-rate of 1.89 goals per game in their nine matches since can attest, they also cleaned things up on the defensive side.

In the second half of that match and the five and half matches that followed, the Sounders defense was a veritable Fort Knox. Outside of a one-minute stretch against the Philadelphia Union that saw Danny Cruz score twice, the Sounders didn’t allow a goal in those 540 minutes.

“Sometimes just small things can decide the game. After the Salt Lake game we knew that we had to think about the small things,” said goalkeeper Michael Gspurning.

Although the Sounders are riding the wave of success into Salt Lake, they also know that their current form is far from flawless and know they will need to make up some of those discrepancies against a team like RSL, who sit second in the West at 8-5-3.

“In success not everything is right and in losing not everything is wrong,” Gspurning said. “We have to always be aware of this – that we can still improve every day.”

Both teams will be getting three players back from international duty, as Johnson, Brad Evans and Mario Martinez rejoin Seattle and Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman and Alvaro Saborio get back for Salt Lake.

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