Sounders ready for big stretch starting with RSL on Friday

The club will face RSL then the LA Galaxy and the East-leading New York Red Bulls in the weeks following.

“If you don’t accept the challenges that life brings with it, then life is not worth living.”

This sage wisdom was given to Sigi Schmid back when he made the jump from the college ranks to coach the LA Galaxy back in 1999.

He was reminded of that insight after Sounders FC topped the Chicago Fire, 2-1, on Saturday to set up a matchup of the top two teams in Major League Soccer on Friday when Seattle hosts league-leading Real Salt Lake.

“This game on Friday is one of those challenges and that’s what makes life worth living,” Schmid said. “That gets the blood going and it’s exciting and makes things happen. It’s such a massive game for our fans to come out and see. This is what you live for; this is why you do sports. This is why we try to strive to do well, so you get opportunities like this.”

The meeting with RSL was bound to be a titanic clash regardless of the place in the standings. Each side has played the role of spoiler to the other at various stages through the years, creating a rivalry of intense proportions.

In the 2011 MLS Cup playoffs, Real Salt Lake ousted Seattle in the Western Conference semifinals on the strength of a 3-0 demolishing in the first leg at Rio Tinto Stadium. In 2012, Sounders FC returned the favor, this time scoring the only goal in the second leg at Rio Tinto Stadium to eliminate RSL in the conference semifinals.

Along the way, they have also had memorable regular-season matches, too, notably when Seattle ended Salt Lake’s 29-match home unbeaten streak in 2011.

This time, it’s different.

On Friday, the two clubs will have a national television audience on NBC Sports that will be set to take in two of the top three teams in MLS over the past five years, with Seattle and Salt Lake trailing only the LA Galaxy in the cumulative standings since 2009 when Sounders FC joined MLS.

At 14-8-6, Real Salt Lake holds a two-point edge over the 14-8-4 Sounders FC in the race for the 2013 Supporters’ Shield.

The match will also have a crowd that will rival that of top leagues around the world, as the match is one of four this season that are opened to full capacity.

On the field, Seattle has won four straight matches and seven of its last eight to climb the standings to the point that it can take the top spot in MLS with a victory on Friday while still holding two games in hand on Real Salt Lake. RSL has been strong in recent weeks, too, posting dismantling victories of 4-0 over the Columbus Crew and 4-2 against the Portland Timbers at Rio Tinto Stadium in the last two matches.

Salt Lake won the two previous meetings against Seattle, too, with a 2-1 result in March and a 2-0 final in June. With both matches at Rio Tinto Stadium, Schmid looks forward to hosting Salt Lake for the first time at CenturyLink Field this year, where Sounders FC is unbeaten in its last 12 matches at 9-0-3.

“I think we're in a much different place from a standpoint of confidence, much different place in the standings, and much different place as far as our cohesion as a team,” Schmid said. “We’ve got some guys returning, so who makes sense changing it up and certainly next Friday for our fans is going to be an absolutely massive game. It’s a massive game next week from the standpoint of the standings, and hopefully we can do what did against Portland. Let’s fill it up because it’s a game you don’t want to miss.”

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