Seattle Sounders Put Up A Fight, Win The Battle, 3-2, But Lose The War

The Sounders dominated Real Salt Lake in nearly every facet, but in the end the performance was not enough to make up a huge deficit.

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Real Salt Lake vs. Seattle Sounders, 2011 MLS Cup Playoffs Second Leg: Facing Absurdly Long Odds, Sounders Must Execute

The Sounders have dug themselves a pretty deep hole, on that there is universal agreement. If the expression is "they've made their bed and now they'll have to lie in it" then instead of linens Seattle decided to use sandpaper. To advance, Seattle has to score three goals in 90 minutes; to give themselves a better chance than the flip of a coin, they'll have to add another in extra time. And they'll have to accomplish all of this while keeping a clean sheet against Real Salt Lake. Either task is difficult enough on its own; combined things look even more dire.

But you knew that. (If you didn't, sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Probably should have watched that other game though.) In a season largely defined by triumph over massive obstacles, this game will perhaps be the most difficult test. And unfortunately, there's no magic bullet; Seattle won't be switching to a three-at-the-back formation (at least not until it gets late) and they're not going to play with all of their available strikers at one time. If the Sounders are going to pull off one of the more impressive comebacks in MLS history, they're going to have to do it by playing the same way they've been playing all season at the highest level they are capable. The Sounders are the highest scoring team in MLS after all. The issue in the first leg was not tactical, it was entirely a result of a terrible performance. A Sounders team clicking on all levels is more than capable of scoring three or more goals in a single game. It's happened four times this season (three times in MLS, once in the CONCACAF Champions League) and though Real Salt Lake are of a higher quality than Toronto FC, Comunicaciones, Columbus and DC United RSL has lost by three goals twice this season and neither time to a team as good as the Sounders. There were extenuating circumstances in both games, but when you're looking for reasons to cling to slim hopes proof of concept is good enough.

The reality of the situation is that a flawless performance from Seattle will not be enough. They'll need outside help, whether it come in the form of sheer dumb luck, of RSL having a game equally as bad as the one Seattle played on Saturday or (more realistically) a combination of the two. The Sounders are nowhere near as bad a team as they appeared to be on Saturday, but a lot of the credit has to go to RSL for playing well enough to highlight how poor of a performance it was. To have a realistic chance of advancing, the Sounders will have to turn the tables and make RSL look just as poor.

And just to compound the difficulties, no matter what the scoreboard at CenturyLink says this game is not starting 0-0. It's unlikely that a Jason Kreis coached team is ever going to play a style that could be described as negative, but they've got a sizable lead and their primary aim will be to protect it. We've seen the Sounders break down comically bunkered defenses before, but few of them have the quality in defense of Real Salt Lake. In that sense, the status of the visitors' center backs is going to be massive; if both starters are close to full health, scoring more than once or twice is going to be insanely difficult. If one or both is healthy enough to play but at a reduced level of effectiveness things will be slightly easier, and if one or both is forced to sit this one out it will be a huge break for Seattle. No one hopes for injuries, but attrition is a huge part of the game whether it's fair or not. If Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers are injured, that benefits the Sounders and could have a massive impact on how this one plays out.

Ultimately, the reality is this; the odds against Seattle staging a comeback and advancing are ludicrously high. But given what we know about the Sounders, there's reason for hope. And even if the Sounders can't recover, there's still the opportunity to save some face. This is probably the last Sounders game until CONCACAF Champions League play picks up again in early March. As frustrating an end to the season as this would be, it's still not anywhere near as bad as four months without the Sounders. And if you choose to skip it, there's always the chance you'll miss out on something pretty special.

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Seattle Sounders Respond To Sky-High Expectations With The Worst Performance In Franchise History

That was inexcusably terrible. Every single element of the Sounders performance was atrocious and embarrassing, and a humiliating 3-0 scoreline flattered the Sounders. There aren't even adjectives strong enough to describe how terrible Seattle was in every phase of the game. The USL era Sounders would have mopped the floor with the impostors that took the pitch wearing rave green tonight.

There's absolutely no sense in attempting to catalog all of the things that went wrong. Osvaldo Alonso was terrible. Fredy Montero was terrible. Alvaro Fernandez was terrible. On most days that's going to be enough to doom Seattle, but everyone else on the pitch wearing green was equally bad. Thing the first goal was offside? Don't think it's fair to count  Saborio's wonder-goal against the Sounders? Okay, fine. But the Sounders still lose 1-0, are lucky not to lose 4-0 and even luckier not to have lost Alonso to a red card after his cold-cocking of Saborio.

This was just beyond embarrassing. There's not much else to say. The Seattle Sounders have shown over the course of the season that they are one of the best teams in MLS and even a top-10 team in CONCACAF. That team didn't show up tonight. the one that did ought to be ashamed of themselves.

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Real Salt Lake vs. Seattle Sounders, MLS Cup Playoffs: Sounders Looking To Set The Tone In First Leg Of Conference Semi-Final

In nearly every sense, this has been the most memorable year in the brief MLS history of the Seattle Sounders. Early turmoil caused by the retirement of Blaise Nkufo and injuries to Steve Zakuani and O'Brian White threatened to derail the season before it even began, but the Sounders shook off their early funk and emerged stronger than they've ever been before. After a season that includes highlights such as an electric month of August,  a win over current CONCACAF Champions League holders Monterrey in Mexico en route to the CCL knockout stage, claiming the first MLS-era Cascadia Cup and a third straight US Open Cup title, this has been the Sounders best season by every measure. Still, there's the feeling that more work is left to be done.

The earliest signal that the Sounders may well be on the verge of accomplishing something pretty special this season came on May 28th. Going into the game, Real Salt Lake had not lost a game at home since May 16th, 2009. 90 minutes later, the streak was over. The game itself was far from remarkable, but the result undeniably was; even the most optimistic Sounders fans saw wining at Rio Tinto as a near impossible mountain to climb, but the Sounders (who hadn't exactly been setting the world on fire to that point) managed to pull it off. At the time it just seemed an improbable but important win, but in hindsight it was a sign the club had grown up a bit (not to mention an early indicator of the strength of the Sounders depth.) There would be more growth and evolution to come (the Sounders managed to win the game in large part to a midfield stifling diamond 4-4-2 formation after all) but for many it was a sign that perhaps this Sounders team was different.

So, after 63 points and some pretty excellent runs in non-league competition, what do the Sounders have left to prove? That's largely going to depend on who you ask, but for the sake of this discussion let's assume the MLS Cup playoffs are the ultimate measure of success. If that's the case, then Seattle still has a great deal to prove. A promising first season was ended by an excellent Houston Dynamo team without the Sounders so much as having a sniff of goal. Seattle would manage to get on the scoresheet a year later against the LA Galaxy, but it came far too late for the goal to be consequential. It would be difficult to argue that this isn't the best Sounders team ever assembled, but for many fans it will be tough to see this season as a step forward without a deeper run into the playoffs, and though many might disagree with that assessment (myself included, in case it actually needed saying) the organization itself does not appear to be among them. The Sounders want to make progress in all arenas this season, and until they make it past their first playoff opponent that goal will not have been attained.

So, winning this tie is a pretty big deal. Even those that are skeptical of playoffs in general would admit to that. And the first step to winning this tie is keeping things close in the first leg. Real Salt Lake may no longer be unbeatable at home, but Rio Tinto is still an incredibly difficult place to play. And with a short turnaround, Seattle has to be careful not to wear themselves out in the thin air. Sigi Schmid has been adamant that the Sounders are going to Rio Tinto with a win as their ultimate goal and I do not doubt the truth of that assertion at all, but the reality of the situation is that in a playoff system with no away-goal tiebreakers, the Sounders top priority needs to be keeping Real Salt Lake off the board. The Sounders have a potent enough attack that they're likely to score at least one against all but the most negative opposition (something that doesn't describe RSL) no matter the tactical approach. There's no harm or shame in playing a slightly more conservative style and if the Sounders can head home on level terms (or, at the risk of cursing things) with an advantage the odds will tip even further in their favor. But play too aggressively and head home trailing? Well, RSL doesn't like to bunker too often, but when they do it's nearly impossible to get through.

in the end, a deeper back line and attack more reliant on the counter than normal will likely suit Seattle's available personnel a bit better than their typical approach, especially given the altitude. If the defense can keep things together, the Sounders are going to be in very good shape. If not, this could be a nervous four days. RSL's defense isn't good enough to bet on a clean sheet against the Sounders, but they're a unit that's difficult to break down. As fun as it might be to see Seattle come out guns-a-blazin' and attacking the opposition's goal with reckless abandon, it's just not the most prudent approach.

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