Otto Greule Jr
After failing to capitalize on numerous chances at home, the Sounders now face a huge test at Rio Tinto against a Real Salt Lake Side that's proven incredibly difficult to crack.
The Seattle Sounders head into the second leg of the Western Conference semifinal with a major test in front of them. After three consecutive playoff disappointments, the Real Salt Lake side that ended their 2011 season and has so far kept Seattle off the board for 360 consecutive minutes in 2012 stand in the way of post-season progress. After a frustrating 0-0 first leg, the Sounders now look to be at least slight underdogs heading into Rio Tinto. But thanks to a fundamentally strong showing that could easily have given Seattle a lead if not for an all-world showing from RSL keeper Nick Rimando, the Sounders can at least feel as though they have a real shot at moving on to face the defending champion LA Galaxy in the conference final.
As has been something of a common theme this season, injuries loom large for Seattle. Eddie Johnson, whose presence was sorely missed in the first leg, looks set to start. Mauro Rosales however is less of a sure thing; while coach Sigi Schmid confirmed that the Sounders' captain traveled with the team to Salt Lake City, there's still been no official word on his status and if Rosales' injury history is any indication a place in the starting XI seems doubtful. That raises the question of who would replace Rosales if he is indeed unable to play; Mario Martinez is the most like-for-like switch, but limited time in MLS play and somewhat uneven performances are strikes against him. Steve Zakuani appears to be near full fitness and has playoff experience, but he's nowhere close to his best form and would require something of a tactical shift in order to accommodate his playing style. David Estrada and Alex Caskey are both options as well, but each of the four would appear to be significant downgrades from Rosales. The return of Eddie Johnson may well offset the loss of Rosales, but the Sounders inability to field their strongest team for any length of time continues to be one of the season's great frustrations.
As should come as little surprise at this stage in the season however, Seattle aren't alone in their injury woes. Striker Fabian Espindola was able to play only the first half of Friday's game at CenturyLink, while defender Jamison Olave started the game on the bench and was only called into action due to an injury to Kwame Watson-Siriboe. Both are currently being called game-time decisions, but neither will likely be at full-strength even if called into action. The physical presence of Olave would be hugely important for RSL, with Seattle's most potent threats in the opening leg coming from the flanks and Eddie Johnson's aerial ability making the Sounders all the more dangerous from such play this time around.
Additionally, RSL is fighting a pretty difficult battle against themselves at the moment; their last goal came on October 6th in a 2-1 win over the LA Galaxy, and they've now gone 360 minutes across all competitions without scoring. Real Salt Lake's strengths aren't necessarily reflected in gaudy goals scored totals, but four straight games without a goal is a worrying stretch for any team. Though they managed to create a few solid chances from decent attacking moves in the first leg, RSL didn't put up too much of a fight against the Sounders defense. That's likely to change at Rio Tinto, but there's little denying that it's a concern for the home side.
If the four games these teams have played this season have shown us anything, it's that they're about as evenly matched as two sides can be. RSL has the only win in all four, a narrow 1-0 at CenturyLink on May 12th. Every other contest has been 0-0, and for good reason. These are two teams that have different strengths and approach the game in different ways, but the end result is largely similar; both sides are very well disciplined, anchored by excellent keepers, and nearly impossible to shut down completely. Real Salt Lake likely has a slight edge by virtue of home field advantage, but the margins are razor thin. It's certainly possible that one of these two sides will fall apart and put a premature end to the tension, but it seems exceedingly unlikely. The odds are much better that Sounders fans have yet another nail-biter in store.