SEATTLE - NOVEMBER 02: Javier Morales #11 of Real Salt Lake battles Jhon Kennedy Hurtado #34 of the Seattle Sounders FC at CenturyLink Field on November 2, 2011 in Seattle, Washington. The Sounders defeated Real Salt Lake 2-0. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
The Sounders are rolling right along and shutting down everything in their wake, but an unpleasant blast from the past will pose one of this season's greatest challenges.
A jam-packed month of May rolls on, and to this point the Sounders don't seem bothered by the cramped schedule in the least; Seattle's win streak is at a franchise-best 5 games, they've outscored the opposition 8-1 during that stretch and they've yet to allow a goal this month. This team looks as good as they ever have, causing both spirits and expectations to rise sky-high in the Emerald City. That's completely understandable, but the Sounders' success so far this season comes with a pretty major caveat; they've played one of the easiest schedules in the league so far. It might not have looked as though that would be the case coming into the season, but clubs like Toronto FC, the Houston Dynamo, the LA Galaxy and FC Dallas have been far less strong so far this year than would have been expected. That's not the case with Real Salt Lake; their points-per-match rate is a tick off the top teams in MLS, but they nonetheless sit atop the league with 23 points from 12 games and perhaps more importantly, they have several wins against quality teams under their belt. There's reason to believe that the Sounders are on the verge of something special this season, but these are the games they need to win in order for that to happen.
From a roster perspective, there's good news for Seattle heading into this one; Alvaro Fernandez is fit and expected to play some role in this one, making his return to action nearly a month after suffering a quadriceps injury in training. The lineup juggling used by Sigi Schmid in Wednesday night's win will allow both Mauro Rosales and Fredy Montero to start, while a fully-rested Osvaldo Alonso will bring the ball-hoovering tenacity that was at times missing against FC Dallas. If there's a question mark it will be at the striker spot not occupied by Montero, as David Estrada and Eddie Johnson have both played significant minutes in every game so far this month. Despite having a well-deserved reputation for having a near-tireless motor, he seems the more likely of the two to start the game on the bench; still there will almost certainly be minutes for both.
Real Salt Lake's main injury concern will be goalkeeper Nick Rimando; the veteran stopper missed RSL's mid-week draw with the Chicago Fire and will once again be replaced by Kyle Reynish. Though Rimando is clearly RSL's first choice, Reynish was excellent in goal against the Fire in earning a clean sheet. But much like Seattle's current string of stinginess, the defense deserves a tremendous amount of the credit. This is, as always, an excellent unit and in the same vein as the Sounders their entire tactical approach-from strikers on back-is undertaken with keeping the opposition off the board in mind. The back line is clearly one of the most imposing units in the league, and they're shielded by the tenacious Kyle Beckerman in midfield. When successful, their possession-based attacking style keeps the ball out of the opposition's hands (in the figurative sense, of course) and they rarely give the opposition the ball in dangerous areas. Seattle and Real Salt Lake are very different teams in terms of their approach, but the end result is largely the same; very attractive, high quality soccer that is far from negative but places a strong emphasis on keeping the opponent's attack locked down.
As most Sounders fans will likely remember, it was the successful execution of that strategy that led to the disastrous 3-0 loss in the first leg of last season's Western Conference semi-final. The Sounders battled back and very nearly forced extra time in the second leg, but the mountain proved far too high to climb in the end. It was easily the most lopsided and embarrassing loss (that counted in the standings) of last season, and it was more than a bit shocking considering how well Seattle had been playing down the stretch. There's little reason to think that Jason Kreis has "figured out" the Sounders in any meaningful sense, but the whooping that RSL laid on Seattle at Rio Tinto was certainly evidence of the kind of thing his team is capable off when they catch even a strong opponent on a bad day.
Real Salt Lake is an incredibly dangerous team, capable of taking anyone out behind the woodshed in any given game. That's been the case for three years now, and they're not likely to go away any time soon. Still, there's a palpable sense-amongst Sounders fans at least, but others as well-that Seattle has raised their game to a new level this season, that they're finally on the cusp of delivering on their enormous promise. To this point, there's been nothing in their performances that would lead anyone to believe otherwise and it may very well be true. But first, they've got to exorcise some demons. Getting a bit of payback for the unceremonious end to last season would be a pretty good step along that path.