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.