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MLS playoff preview: Seattle Sounders at Real Salt Lake

Nov 7, 2012, 2:15 PM EDT

Real Salt Lake v Seattle Sounders - Western Conference Semifinals Getty Images

Who would have thought the most exciting much of this year’s playoffs would be a 0-0? So far, that’s the case, though it’s not a fair question. Not many postseason predictions posts have a place for Scoreline of the playoffs’ most exciting game. Even if somebody spends time thinking about such things, there aren’t many places to go on record.

But since Seattle and Real Salt Lake opened the semifinal round with a goalless thriller last Friday, the rest of Major League Soccer’s round of eight has been unable to replicate the drama. So between the scoreline, Nick Rimando’s heroics, the teams’ history (they also met in last year’s Western Conference semis), and the pure quality of these two MLS Cup contenders, it would be fair to call Thursday’s second leg at Rio Tinto highly anticipated.

And as with all second legs, there’s always on big, underlying question: What should we expect to change from the first leg.

Kickoff: 10:00 p.m. Eastern, Rio Tinto Stadium, NBC Sports Network

Series is tied, 0-0, after leg one

On Real Salt Lake

  • Mission accomplished? On paper, yes. RSL got out of CenturyLink with a draw. What road team wouldn’t take that?
  • But Friday’s outcome was less of a moral victory than a boxer absorbing a 12-round beating only to be bailed out by the judges. Sure, you take it, but in your heart, you know you got worked.
  • That type of analogy completely ignores the fact that goalkeeper Nick Rimando is an RSL player, the team values counts on his performance, and you can’t just dissociate a goalkeeper’s contributions from the rest of the team’s when assessing the product (a mistake which, admittedly, I’ve done too often). Rimando has given other-worldly performances before. Who’s to say he won’t do so again on Thursday?
  • Ideally, Jason Kreis won’t need any incredible performances to get a result, but that requires solving the midfield problem. RSL’s diamond was exploited down its left, an advantage that led to 30 open play crosses for Seattle.
  • The midfield also failed to connect with Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola. Saborio scored twice in last year’s home leg, but on Friday, he didn’t get a good look until very late.
  • Fabian Espindola, who left Friday’s match at halftime with a hamstring injury, is listed as probable. So is Ned Grabavoy (quad) and every RSL central defender: Jamison Olave (hamstring), Nat Borchers (quad), Chris Schuler (quad) and Kwame Watson-Siriboe (ankle). What’s with all the quad strains?

On the Seattle Sounders

  • Seattle has injury concerns of their own, most notably with Mauro Rosales. The man responsible for so much of the work against RSL’s left limped from the field on Friday after tweaking a hamstring. But rest easy, SounderFan. Rosales didn’t even make the injury report.
  • More good news: Eddie Johnson will be back. The U.S. international (and Seattle’s leading goalscorer during the regular season) didn’t even dress on Friday. His presence was sorely missed. It’s hard to believe Seattle doesn’t convert one of their myriad of crosses if one of the league’s greatest aerial threats is in the team. On Friday, Sigi Schmid made sure everybody knew: Eddie will be ready for Utah.
  • Seattle’s only other injury concern is left back Leo Gonzalez, who missed game one with a hamstring strain. Veteran Marc Burch will probably get the call.
  • Though the final score doesn’t show it, Seattle’s coming off one of their best performances of the season (the best game I’ve seen them play all year). One man’s extraordinary performance kept them from a lopsided win, so while a 0-0 result at home would normally lead to some tweaks, Schmid’s task for leg two is to keep his good thing going.
  • That means exploiting the wide areas. Or, area. Seattle’s right side, manned by Rosales, proved a huge advantage on Friday.  If Rosales is less than 100 percent or Kreis finds a solution, it’s not something Seattle’s likely to replicate on their left. There are only so many Mauro Rosaleses in the world.
  • What would Plan B be? Any variety of options centering around Johnson. Or Fredy Montero. Or the play of Christian Tiffert and Osvaldo Alonso. You’d call it am embarrassment of riches, but general manager Adrian Hanauer and staff have no reason to blush about the job they’ve done.
  • One of Hanauer’s more recent acquisitions, goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, received a lot of credit for his overshadowed Friday performance, but in a game where the little things could prove decisive, Gspurning will have to avoid replicating the first half giveaway that gifted RSL a chance at goal.
  • Obligatory Seattle history references: They’ve never won a playoff series (0-for-3). In 2009, their first leg with Houston also ended scoreless, with the second leg requiring extra time after another goalless 90 minutes. Brian Ching scored in the 96th minute to end Seattle’s first MLS season.
  • Seattle’s scored only three goals in 660 playoff minutes: 0.41 goals per game. That’s not bad. It’s terrible.

Bottom line:

If Seattle plays like they did on Friday, they win most of the time. “Most” actually understates how good they were. The Sounders win nine out of 10 games playing at that level, which is why their history of playoff frustrations should matter little on Thursday. Keep doing what they’re doing, and Seattle moves on.

The ball is in Kreis’s court. His team is as predictable as they come in terms of set up and tactics. He always uses that narrow, diamond in midfield, and the team likes its short, controlled passing game – a plan that didn’t work on Friday. It failed miserably, but thanks to Nick Rimando, RSL’s was given a lifeline.

The extent to which they take advantage of that lifeline depends on Kreis’s changes.

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