Sounders to face familiar foe in playoff series with RSL

The two clubs have played each other quite a bit in the four years that the Sounders have been in MLS, including two straight playoff matchups.

There isn’t a team in Major League Soccer that the Sounders have seen more in league and playoff action than Real Salt Lake.

They’ve played to a virtual standoff in those 11 matches too, going 3-4-4 against the 2009 MLS Cup champions. However, it is the last five games that stand out most to fans of the two sides. In the three regular season matches they have contested this year, just one goal has been scored – by Fabian Espindola in the first meeting – and Salt Lake holds a 1-0-2 edge.

Last year, though, they met in the Western Conference semifinals, opening at Rio Tinto Stadium and finishing at CenturyLink Field. In the latter of the two matches, the Sounders dominated and posted a 2-0 victory in the match. However, it wasn’t enough to overcome the three goals Salt Lake scored in the first leg at Rio Tinto and the Sounders were still in search of their first win in a playoff series in three tries.

Those teams meet again in the Western Conference Semifinals beginning Friday night at CenturyLink Field and while the sting of that loss still resonates in the fanbase, the Sounders are focused on winning MLS Cup regardless of who is in their path.

“It’s not about payback,” Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid said. “It’s about advancing. All we want to do is advance and advancing will give us the payback.”

This is a much different Sounders team than the one that fell 3-0 at Rio Tinto Stadium though. Fourteen players on their current roster were not on the team when they finished the season in 2011. That total includes goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, who led the league with a 0.73 goals against average. It also includes right back Adam Johansson and left back Marc Burch, who is likely to start with Leo Gonzalez ruled out of the match by Schmid on Thursday. In the midfield, Christian Tiffert has been a stalwart since coming to the Sounders in July and the Sounders are 7-3-4 since he was added to the roster.

Another addition to last year’s team is forward Eddie Johnson, who led the Sounders with a franchise-record 14 goals. However, the resurgent US National Team striker left Sunday’s regular season finale against the LA Galaxy and it is unclear if he will be available for the first leg of the aggregate goal series on Friday.

“We have to see for sure. Chances are, he might not be able to play tomorrow. We’ll make the final determination tomorrow before the game,” Schmid said on Thursday. “We think the second game’s not going to be an issue, tomorrow, we’ll have to see.”

With or without Johnson, the Sounders will have a tall task ahead.

Helped by their unbeaten record against Seattle, RSL finished second in the West at 17-11-6. And while the familiarity has created a budding rivalry, the Sounders remain focused on how they can impact the game themselves.

“We know each other very well. We know the players they have and how they are going to play. They are a very good team,” said midfielder Mauro Rosales, who missed the playoff series last year with a knee injury. “But we have to be ready for that game and respect that team and think about us and all the good things we did this year and try to use those things to put us in the next round.”

Kickoff is set for 7 pm Pacific from CenturyLink Field in the first leg of the series on Friday. The second leg will be at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, on Thursday at 6 pm Pacific.