Sounders prepare for familiar foe in Real Salt Lake

Since 2009, the Sounders have only squared off against the LA Galaxy as many times as they have faced Real Salt Lake in regular season and postseason play, and the two clubs meet again Wednesday night in a matchup with playoff implications.

In each year that they’ve played, the Sounders and Real Salt Lake have shown to be quite equal foes.

Each season, the two teams have split their MLS regular season meetings down the middle and this year, the Sounders will have to fight a tough battle to ensure that trend continues.

In 2009, Seattle took the home contest 2-0 at CenturyLink Field, only to fall 1-0 at Rio Tinto Stadium later that year.

2010 saw the teams draw at both venues and in 2011, each team won on the other team’s home field.  Even in the MLS Cup playoffs that year they split the two games, with RSL advancing 3-2 in the aggregate goal series.

This year, Salt Lake won 1-0 on a Fabian Espindola goal in the first meeting in Seattle on May 12, then they played to a scoreless draw in Utah on July 4.

As the all-time series has grown over the years, so has the importance of the matches.

“The past three years, they are a team that’s been consistently in the playoffs, so we play the game like a playoff game,” Sounders FC forward Fredy Montero said.  “We know the responsibility we have in front of our fans.  We need to win this game to get close to the second position.”

The Sounders have only played the LA Galaxy as many times as they’ve faced Salt Lake in regular season and postseason play since 2009.  Over that time, the teams have grown quite familiar with each other because of the lineup consistency the two teams have shown over the last four years.

With a nucleus of players that has stayed consistent since opening night that has included Montero, Brad Evans, Osvaldo Alonso and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, as well as Steve Zakuani, Leo Gonzalez and Patrick Ianni making regular contributions, the Sounders have been able to keep many key players to their success while adding other key players to the mix.

In Salt Lake, head coach Jason Kreis still has eight of the nine players who started at least 20 games for him in 2009, along with veterans Espindola and Ned Grabavoy, as well as forward Alvaro Saborio, who joined the team in 2010 and has been their leading scorer ever since.

“They’re a team that’s been able to stay intact,” Schmid said.  “Their nucleus – their top 10-11 players – have been there now for four years together.  There’s certainly a familiarity they have with each other as a group, a familiarity that shows in their play, as well.  Every team in the league has a good awareness of what they’re about when they’ve got their people on the field.”

Although Salt Lake has established a high level of performance in their diamond midfield that has not been matched in recent years in MLS, they do play a similar, free-flowing style to Seattle that presents a challenge to both teams, while also providing an entertaining product on the field.

“When you end up playing teams that are similar to the style you play, it ends up being a really tight game,” defender Zach Scott said.  “RSL plays the game the right way, knocking it around and using skill.  If physicality comes into it, then we’ll both be physical teams, but it’s always a really pretty game.”

The match on Wednesday is ripe with playoff implications, as the Sounders sit three points behind RSL in the Western Conference standings.  Salt Lake is on 55 points at 17-11-4 for the second spot while Seattle is third at 52 points with a 14-7-10 record.  With one game in hand, the Sounders have an opportunity to draw even on points with RSL with a win and stay within striking distance with a draw.

Landing in second in the West would give the Sounders home field advantage against either RSL or the LA Galaxy in the Western Conference semifinals.  Remaining in third would mean they would host the first game of that first-round matchup while falling to fourth would put them in the October 31 one-game wild card round against the fifth place team.

Real Salt Lake hosts the Vancouver Whitecaps in their final match of the regular season on October 27, while Seattle hosts FC Dallas on October 21 and heads to the Home Depot Center to close out the season against the LA Galaxy on October 28.

Kickoff for Wednesday’s match is set for 7 pm Pacific Time, with the live national broadcast on NBC Sports and the local broadcast on KONG 6/16 and Root Sports.