SEATTLE – Sounders FC wasn't out to send a message with its match with Real Salt Lake on Saturday.
However, a 4-0 trouncing of the defending Western Conference champions—who had previously gone unbeaten in 12 straight matches to start the 2014 season—may have been more than Seattle Head Coach Sigi Schmid needed to vocalize. The message was as loud as the 39,245 in attendance at CenturyLink Field. And the message was clear.
"Today was a big game for us," said Sounders FC midfielder Gonzalo Pineda, who scored his second goal in as many weeks when he converted a 42nd minute penalty to give Seattle a 1-0 lead. "Sigi told us right before the game that today was a very important game for us, for the fans, for the crowd.
This was a playoff-like game because we wanted to keep first place in the league, and we did, so it was big for everybody."
That playoff atmosphere came with the two top teams in MLS squaring off, but is a feeling that has been ubiquitous throughout the last 13 matches between the two clubs.
Each has been a hard-fought battle to the final whistle, with no regular season games separated by more than two goals. Saturday was far from that.
In a back-and-forth first half that was low on shots and high on intensity, Seattle went into the break with a 1-0 lead on Pineda's penalty.
In the 55th minute, Marco Papa spun a remarkable free kick over the Salt Lake wall and inside the near post for his first goal in Seattle, lifting Seattle's lead to 2-0. That lead extended to 3-0 in the 62nd minute as Seattle won the ball in the midfield, then gave chase up the right side. Lamar Neagle raced into the box to draw the attention of the defense, then crossed to Chad Barrett coming up the left side. His shot deflected off RSL defender Aaron Maund and in for his third goal of the season, and second in as many matches.
Obafemi Martins would add a fourth in the 90th minute, as Seattle put the defensive locks on Salt Lake and extended its home winning streak to five matches, as well as its home shutout streak to 254 minutes.
"Right now, we're not about sending messages. We're in first place. We wanted to hold on to first place. We talked about creating some separation there," Schmid said. "As a group we are maturing and being able to step into a game between a first place team and a second place team and win and have a convincing result speaks volumes for our character."
Both teams played with diminished lineups due to injuries and international call-ups, but once the match started, it was still two fierce rivals on the field and there was nothing lessened about the feeling in the Seattle locker room after the victory.
While it was a testament to the depth in Seattle to have success without Clint Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin, it meant even more to Schmid.
"It's not only our depth. I think it's our spirit," Schmid said. "The guys like each other. The guys work hard for each other. The guys battle for each other. And it doesn't matter who's out there on the field."
Seattle had plenty of motivation heading into the match. Earning time on the field, keeping a hold on first place and keeping home dominance were high on the list, but so was stopping Salt Lake's season-opening unbeaten run.
"They're obviously a very good team and they were right with us at the top of the West," said goalkeeper Stefan Frei, who posted his fourth shutout of the season. "Now we've created a bit of separation, which is good, but they're a really good side and I'm very, very happy with the result today."