Otto Greule Jr
After three disappointing postseasons, the Sounders enter the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals desperate to make a deep playoff run. Standing in their way is a Real Salt Lake side whose 3-0 thumping of Seattle at the same stage last season brought a once promising season to a crashing halt.
To say that the 2012 MLS season has been a bit of a roller-coaster for the Seattle Sounders would be an understatement. After starting the year looking every bit a Supporters Shield candidate, key injuries and struggles to find an identity led to a mid-season swoon that was unmatched by any slump in the club's MLS history. Just as panic began to set in, the Sounders managed to pull themselves out of the mire, but that stain was impossible to remove despite a strong finish to the season and Seattle fell backwards into seventh place in MLS.
In a league so fungible as MLS, however, that kind of search for an identity isn't as important. The Sounders had an identifiable weakness in midfield, and after something of an adjustment period it became clear that it had been addressed. Whether the addition of Christian Tiffert at the expense of Alvaro Fernandez has solved Seattle's problems remains to be seen, but the added steel at he expense of flair has given this Sounders team an added dimension. With Tiffert sliding into the middle and a combination of Brad Evans and Steve Zakuani on the left, the Sounders have clearly more versatile than they have been in years past.
But whether that's enough to work their way past Real Salt Lake remains to be seen. The claret and cobalt have proven themselves to be an especially tricky foe, besting the Sounders at CenturyLink Field on one occasion with a 1-0 victory and holding Seattle to a 0-0 stalemate on the other two occasions that these two sides have met in 2012. The Sounders have shown themselves to be a the match of nearly every team in MLS this season, but coming as is the equal of your opposition means little in a knockout tournament; the Sounders will clearly need to step up their game or hope that the opposition lowers theirs, and in a knockout tournament counting on the opposition to step things down a level is a dangerous strategy indeed.
Ultimately, this is a contest that's far too close to call. The Sounders clearly have the talent to win and MLS Cup, but whether they have the will is another matter. Seattle is clearly as talented as any team in the league, but whether they can overcome the will of a Real Salt Lake side making a final push remains to be seen. The Sounders attack will likely be missing Eddie Johnson and that will put them at a disadvantage, but between Montero, Tiffert, and Rosales, that absence can be overcome. This home leg will clearly set the tone, and the key factor will be whether or not the Sounders are up to the task of taking a step forward.