A look at some key facts ahead of tomorrow's opening leg of the MLS Cup playoff tie between the Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake.
With just over 24 hours to go before the Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake contest the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals, here's a look at the injuries, recent fortunes and key players for each team.
Clearly, the big news of the week is news that Sounders winger Mauro Rosales suffered damage to his previously injured MCL and will not travel to Salt Lake City with the team. That's a big blow to the team as Rosales has been something of a talisman for the Sounders this season, but it's hardly a death knell; the quality of Seattle's depth has been one of the most important factors in separating this year's team from that of the previous two seasons. There's undeniably a drop-off in talent from Rosales to likely starter Lamar Neagle, but the Sounders are still well above average as an attacking side.
Outside of Rosales, the Sounders injury report is fairly clean (assuming you've grown used to seeing Steve Zakuani and O'Brian White both listed.) Josh Ford is listed as doubtful but at this point is likely well behind Bryan Meredith on the depth chart. Amadou Sanyang is listed as probable but will almost certainly not make the 18, and on the off chance he does end up in the squad Sanyang taking the field would mean things have gone either very, very well or catastrophically bad.
In all, October has been a fairly kind month to the Sounders. Things opened up with a come-from-behind win against the New England Revolution in Foxboro with Seattle fielding a far below first-choice squad and the high point of the season so far came three days later as the Sounders lifted the US Open Cup for the third straight year. The only black marks on the record came in a 2-0 home loss to the Philadelphia Union (a game which the Sounders were forced to play without Rosales, Fredy Montero and Alvaro Fernandez) and a 2-1 home loss to Monterrey in the CONCACAF Champions League (a game in which Sigi Schmid chose to go young and somewhat experimental with the team as progression to the knockout round had already been decided.)
The Sounders recent league results have been encouraging and Seattle looked sharp in their 3-1 win over Chivas USA, an especially heartening fact as the lineup featured for the vast majority of that game is similar to the one Seattle is expected to use against RSL (the only expected changes being Lamar Neagle starting in favor of Roger Levesque and Tyson Wahl sliding in at left back ahead of Leo Gonzalez.) More importantly, the Sounders have been playing at a pace similar to the Los Angeles Galaxy (who just wrapped up what is arguably the best regular season in MLS history) for the better part of 6 months; the Sounders are playing very well right now, and their performance over the longer term gives every inclination of believing it is sustainable.
Real Salt Lake
Real Salt Lake enters this game as healthy as they've been all season long. RSL enter the game with their entire first-choice lineup intact, and a bigger concern than health will be whether or not Kyle Beckerman can seamlessly move back into the side; given Beckerman's track record, there's little reason to doubt that he can. RSL's playmaking attacking midfielder Javier Morales has returned from a five-month absence due to injury, and though he's not back to his old self just yet his performances down the stretch have been quite encouraging. Morales at 80% fitness is still one of the best and most skillful players in the league, and he's going to be a handful for the Sounders defense.
RSL does have two not-insignificant injuries as defender Tony Beltran and midfielder Ned Grabavoy are both listed as questionable. Neither player is first choice but both have played a significant number of minutes this season and RSL's bench will be weaker if they aren't able to appear in the squad. Not losses on the scale of Rosales, but significant losses nonetheless (likely akin to the Sounders losing Leo Gonzalez and Erik Friberg.)
The past month has not been kind to Real Salt Lake to say the least; RSL hasn't won a game since defeating the New York Red Bulls 3-1 on September 21st. Their next game out they were stunned by DC United, losing 4-1. Even more embarrassing was their final game of the month, a 3-0 loss to the Chicago Fire at Rio Tinto during which they lost midfielder Kyle Beckerman for the remainder of the regular season due to his head-butting Chicago's Daniel Paladini. Morales make his return later in that game but well after Beckerman's sending-off, meaning the two players that made RSL one of the league's elite all of last season and through the beginning of this one haven't taken the field together since May.
RSL has been a poor team for the past month; a team that loses 3-0 to the Vancouver Whitecaps cannot argue against this being the case. But they've also been a team without their captain and the engine of their midfield, a team whose best and most dangerous attacking player has been regaining strength and touch after returning from what easily could have been a career-ending injury. To look at their current run of form and conclude that it's representative of the team they are now would be, quite frankly, pretty dumb. Luckily, Sigi Schmid is not dumb. It's best to prepare for RSL as one may have prepared for them in May of this year at the height of their form in league play, and the odds are quite good that's what Schmid will be doing.
Osvaldo Alonso vs. Kyle Beckerman
Okay, you're right; this one's cheating, and right off the bat too. For shame. But bear with me.
While it's true that Alonso and Beckerman aren't likely do do much battle directly with one another, but what they will be asked to do is fairly similar; neutralize the opposition's most creative force (Morales in the case of RSL, Montero in the case of Seattle) and ensure that the attack flows smoothly from back to front with as few giveaways as possible. Beckerman and Alonso aren't similar players in the strictest sense, but they dare responsible for doing many of the same things; they just go about them in different ways. Their performances will be absolutely crucial; whichever of the two teams get better performances from their holding midfielder is likely to see things swing in their favor.
Mike Fucito vs. Nat Borchers And Jamison Olave
Mike Fucito has started both of Seattle's games against Real Salt Lake, and both times he's been an absolute handful for the RSL defense. For whatever reason, Fucito seems to give one of the better central defensive pairings in MLS fits and it's that track record that makes him the likely starter (at least for the first leg) over Sammy Ochoa. With Fredy Montero and Alvaro Fernandez on the field no defense can afford to pay too much attention to Mike Fucito, so he's taken to making it his business to force them to pay attention to him; for whatever reason, it's been a more successful strategy against RSL than against numerous other (and far poorer) MLS teams. If Fucito can make the same kind of impact in this game, RSL is going to be in pretty serious trouble.
Alvaro Saborio And Fabian Espindola vs. James Riley And Tyson Wahl/Leo Gonzalez
If Seattle has had a recurring weakness this season it's been the tendency of their full backs to over-commit themselves to supporting the attack, leaving themselves susceptible to the counter. Some of this is by design; the Sounders like to get forward and use their full backs as attacking weapons, and part of the trade-off is accepting some additional risk in the defensive end of things. But there's a difference between getting beaten by a well-execute counter attack and leaving yourself in a position to be flayed open by even the most pedestrian of opposition. It probably doesn't need saying, but Saborio and Espindola are not pedestrian opposition; RSL is not a team that bunkers and counters as a rule, but like any good attacking team they are more than capable of finding goals on the break when the opportunity is there. Keeping this team from scoring in the normal flow of play will be difficult enough; this is not the time to let them grab cheap goals due to poor positional awareness.