Otto Greule Jr - Getty Images
The Sounders can put their playoff fate in their own hands with a win against Real Salt Lake, but dropped points at home would leave Seattle facing an uphill climb for second in the west and give the LA Galaxy an opening to claim the all important third spot in the standings.
Following a 3-0 thrashing of the Portland Timbers, an international break weekend, and the thrill of seeing striker Eddie Johnson shine for the US National Team, the delirium of the past few weeks has allowed Wednesday's clash with Real Salt Lake to fly a bit under the radar. That's unfortunate, because this may very well be the biggest league game the Sounders have played all season; the Supporters Shield may be well and truly out of reach, but things are incredibly tight in the middle of the playoff race with just three points separating Seattle and RSL and the Galaxy lurking just two points behind the Sounders. Seattle is currently in control of their own destiny in terms of avoiding the play-in round of the MLS playoffs, but a wasted game in hand with the Galaxy lurking in the season's last match could drastically alter the equation, while a win against Real Salt Lake would put the Sounders in the drivers seat in the race for second in the Western Conference, meaning a clearer path to the CONCACAF Champions League and at least some home-field edge in postseason play.
As it stands, RSL have a three point edge over the Sounders with Seattle holding a game in hand. The goals scored mark (which is apparently more important than goal difference for some reason that no one has been able to explain in rational terms) favors Seattle, meaning that a Sounders win would put them into second place no matter the outcome of Sunday's clash with FC Dallas. A win for Seattle would clearly improve their standing heading into the playoffs, and by the same token a failure to secure three points would make things much more difficult over the next two games; even a draw would give the Sounders three point edge of the Galaxy with LA holding a significant edge in terms of goals scored (though not in terms of goal difference, which is once again something that must be considered for reasons that we can only presume are incredibly dumb) and playing host in the season's final game.
Clearly then, this is a massive game for both sides. And unfortunately, thanks to the Sounders July friendly against Chelsea, neither side will be at full strength. Thanks to the international break the Sounders will be without Adam Johansson and Mario Martinez, while an appearance from Eddie Johnson is highly unlikely after two 90-minute shifts in the space of four days (though theoretically possible thanks to a fine display of sportsmanship by RSL) while Alvaro Saborio and Will Johnson will be unavailable for the visitors with Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando a bit of a question mark due to their late arrival in spite of not playing in either US national team qualifying match this past week.
With each side missing their most potent attacking weapon both are clearly weakened, though Real Salt Lake likely come out a bit ahead with Rimando and Beckerman both presumably available while the Sounders are forced to do without Johansson at right back. The injury report reveals an even clearer edge for the visitors, with Leo Gonzalez and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado both listed as doubtful thanks to injuries suffered against Portland. Still, on the balance of things it's tough to give either side a distinct advantage in terms of talent or recent form. Though both teams are weakened, this game still has all of the makings of an even contest with the playoff implications making a tightly contested affair all the more likely.
Seattle's keys to victory are clear; avoid lapses at the back with a compromised defensive unit and perhaps more importantly, create chances with an attacking corps that has at times looked flat without Eddie Johnson. Between Fredy Montero, Mauro Rosales and Christian Tiffert there's plenty of firepower in Seattle's offensive ranks, but without Johnson's positional awareness and poaching skills, they'll need to take a different approach than usual in order to get onto the scoresheet. Seattle has been quite effective at earning draws from situations such as these all season long, but in this instance such a result would do little good in terms of improving Seattle's playoff positioning. The Sounders need a win from his game, and anything less will cast serious doubt over the ultimate success over this regular season.