MLS CUP: Head-to-Head Breakdown: Real Salt Lake vs. Seattle

Who's got the edge in Saturday's Western Conf. semifinal?

Nick Rimando somehow has never won the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award. A lot of folks think that could – and perhaps should – change this season. Whether he does or not, he’s undoubtedly one of the greatest MLS has ever seen, and has two previous Cups and a pair of Supporters’ Shields to prove it. Rimando has done it all before, and his proficiency at stopping penalties is an underrated asset.

 

GOALKEEPERS

 

It’s hard to knock Kasey Keller – he’s had a great career, and hasn’t slipped much at all now that he’s in his 40s. But if there’s been a weakness from the veteran, it’s been a propensity to give up goals from distance. Against a Real Salt Lake side that boasts bombers like Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman and Fabián Espíndola, that could prove to be a fatal flaw.

RSL had to go through a number of defensive iterations this season thanks to injuries and red cards. They’re mostly healthy, but through sheer volume of reps, they’re not up to the standards they’d set at the end of 2009 and into 2010. And as FC Dallas showed in last season’s playoffs, they can be unlocked through sheer speed if that’s what the situation calls for. Of course, they’re still one of the very best back lines in the league, entirely capable of pitching a shutout if they’re on their day. It’s just that performances like that have been fewer and further between than they’d prefer.

 

 

DEFENSE

 

The Seattle attack gets all the headlines since they led the league in goals, but the back line has been just as solid. Jeff Parke and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado have a great combination of athleticism and veteran savvy in the center of defense, being equally adept at handling big, bruising forwards and speedsters alike. Tyson Wahl provides a strong overlapping presence on the left flank, and though he can be beaten for pace, he isn’t very often. James Riley isn’t much of a threat up the right side, but he gets the job done. Most important is that the four of them are healthy and have been in the lineup together all year.

The “Clockwork Claret” midfield of 2010 never really got a chance to show their stuff in 2011 thanks to – you guessed it – red cards and injuries. But now Morales is nearly back to his pre-injury form, Beckerman’s back from his three-game suspension, and the rest of the cast are all ready to play their part for what was the league’s most fun team to watch last season. There are always going to be concerns for a player coming off an injury like Morales’, but he’s been going full-tilt in practice for a month now and has two full games under his belt. Chances are he’ll get another 90 on Saturday.

 

MIDFIELD

Full credit to the Sounders: Every time they lost a key player, they found someone to step in and do the job, almost never missing a beat. Whether it was losing Steve Zakuani for the season or Mauro Rosales for a month, head coach Sigi Schmid just kept finding midfielders who could fill the gap. But going into such a big game without so many major pieces is a real worry. Of course, Osvaldo Alonso can provide a lot of cover all by himself, and Álvaro Fernández is a game-winner. How well Lamar Neagle and Brad Evans play, however, will be what tells the tale.

Nothing for Real Salt Lake in 2011 functioned quite like it was supposed to with the notable exception of Espíndola. The high-energy Argentine notched a career-high with 10 goals and chipped in 3 assists to boot. His running mate, Álvaro Saborío, did even better, grabbing 11 goals in just 22 starts. But the big Costa Rican didn’t look like his normal self throughout much of the year. After stretch that saw him grab three goals in four games, the well went nearly dry to close the season as Saborío netted just once in his last 360 minutes on the pitch.

 

FORWARDS

The hottest striker in the league right now is Fredy Montero. The Colombian finished with 12 goals and nine assists on the season, and has either scored or set one up in each of his last eight starts. Finding a consistent running-mate for Montero has been a tougher task, as Mike Fucito, Nate Jaqua, Roger Levesque and Pat Noonan have all gotten significant time this season but not produced many tangible results. Things have looked more promising from new addition Sammy Ochoa, who has a pair of goals in just 100 league minutes.

 

 

You get the whole package with Jason Kreis: Top-level experience from his days as a player, an insatiable work-ethic, and the patience to build a team and a system for the long-haul. The former MLS MVP has the 2009 MLS Cup in his trophy case and badly wants to add another to it. He was able to hold the team together and keep them in contention up until October, and now that they’re all fit and available, he’s got RSL believing that this is their postseason.

 

COACH

Schmid’s the winningest manager in MLS history. He’s the only coach to win the MLS Cup with two teams, and for good measure, he actually did the MLS Cup/Supporters’ Shield double with each. He’s dealt with egos too big and too small, fielded the league’s best attacking team and best defensive team. He’s won playing cynically and won with his team playing beautiful, creative soccer. And he’s said repeatedly that winning the 2011 MLS Cup is his team’s biggest goal. Tough to bet against him.

 

RSL’s 2011 was more about surviving than thriving. They hung on for dear life without Morales and were able to figure out who’s up for the fight and who needs more time cooking. They have veteran reliability in the form of Ned Grabavoy and youthful spark in Luis Gil, but beyond that, there are questions about a group that failed to meet the same level the 2010 team’s reserves were able to consistently reach.

 

BENCH

Seattle may be coming into these playoffs as the most tried-and-tested team in league history. They’ve already won one trophy, qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League knock-out rounds with a game in hand, and had no qualms about going 25-deep to do it. They don’t have a game-breaker on the bench since Neagle’s starting, but they do have experience and toughness. Can’t overstate the value of that during playoff time.

 

To RSL’s eternal credit, they didn’t come unglued during their six-game winless stretch to close out the season, and spent this week of practice playing loose and having fun. But the fact of the matter is that they are on a six-game winless streak, and their midfield hasn’t played together as a unit since April. Against almost any other first round opponent, that probably wouldn’t matter. But it’s hard to see any group that’s not functioning at full efficiency getting the job done against this Seattle team.

 

OVERALL

It’s already crystal clear that the Sounders aren’t intimidated by the atmosphere or altitude at Rio Tinto – it was they who ended RSL’s league-record home undefeated streak, after all. More than that, though, is the fact that Seattle have the quiet confidence of a team that knows exactly what it did wrong last postseason, and exactly how to fix it this time around. Obviously whether they’re correct to be confident won’t be answered until Wednesday, but right now, they have the look of a team that’s focused and ready.