The last time Seattle Sounders FC visited Real Salt Lake, the RSL roster was dotted with a Major League Soccer-record 10 players who had been with the club five seasons or longer.
Among them were defender Jamison Olave, midfielder Will Johnson and forward Fabian Espindola – who are gone, gone and gone this season. With those players traded away, Seattle will face a still-evolving RSL squad today in Sandy, Utah.
“They play the same system; they’re still 4-4-2 with the diamond,” Sounders assistant coach Brian Schmetzer said Friday. “It’s different personalities, for sure, so it makes them look perhaps a little different. But the quality that they show in their possession and how they play and line up – all that’s the same.”
However, the early results haven’t been quite the same. After starting the season with a 2-0
win at San Jose, RSL has gone 0-2-1 over its last three matches – the same as the Sounders.
“Obviously, they wish their results would be a little different, but they’ve had some tough games,” Schmetzer said. “We’ve had some tough games. It’s a tough league. It’s a very even league, so these early-season games – especially teams that don’t have the record perhaps we think we should or they think they should have – become big games.”
RSL is the No. 6 team in the MLS Western Conference, while Seattle is in ninth – last – place.
That’s a long fall from the clubs’ meeting in the 2012 playoffs, when the third-seeded Sounders eliminated second-seeded RSL on a late goal.
That was just the latest in a series of memorable matches between these teams. Another was the Sounders’ 2-1 victory in 2011, which ended RSL’s league-record 29-game home unbeaten streak.
Salt Lake got a bit of revenge in that postseason by eliminating Seattle from the playoffs, boosted by a 3-0 win at Rio Tinto Stadium. The Sounders evened that score a bit last season by knocking RSL out of the playoffs behind Mario Martinez’s goal in the 81st minute.
“Every game is a rivalry to a certain extent,” coach Sigi Schmid said of the Seattle-Salt Lake series. “Our league is so tight and so competitive that we have to be prepared for every game. I don’t know if it feels more like a rivalry than any other team. But, certainly, when you look at the playoffs, we’ve probably played them as much as we’ve played anybody over the past two years.”
Several new Sounders are expected to experience this Western Conference pairing for the first time. Among those are designated players Obafemi Martins, who is just back from duty with the Nigerian national team, and Shalrie Joseph, who is expected to make his Sounders debut after recovering from a calf injury.
Mario Martinez is not expected to be available today, after being delayed in his return from Honduras. However, U.S. national team member Eddie Johnson is back and eager to pair with Martins in an effort to add punch to a Seattle offense that has scored one goal over its first three games.
“I don’t think we’re going through a tough spell; I think it’s a challenging spell – trying to think of something positive,” Johnson said. “I think we’ve been very solid in the back. But ... it’s up to us strikers now. We’re getting chances, and it’s just a matter of time before they go in.”
SOUNDERS FC (0-2-1; 1 Point) AT REAL SALT LAKE (1-2-1; 4)
6 p.m., Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, Utah
TV: Ch. 6/16. Radio: 97.3-FM.
Head to head: Salt Lake leads the regular season series 3-2-4 overall, but the clubs are 1-1-2 at Rio Tinto. RSL eliminated Seattle from the 2011 playoffs, while Seattle eliminated RSL last season. The last eight regular-season meetings have been decided by one goal or fewer. Last season, a total of two goals – one by each team – were scored over five meetings.
Notes: The Sounders lost, 1-0, at San Jose last weekend. The club hasn’t lost back-to-back league games since March 2011 – the longest streak in MLS history. A Sounders loss also would give them the worst start in club history. ... Seattle is expected to be close to full strength with the return of forwards Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins from international duty, and midfielders Shalrie Joseph and Brad Evans from injury. ... Five Salt Lake players are back from international duty: goalkeeper Nick Rimando, midfielder Kyle Beckerman, defenders Tony Beltran and Adoulie Mansally, and forward Alvaro Saborio. ... Saborio is second in MLS with three goals this season. He had a career-high 17 last season. Rimando is second in MLS career shutouts and wins, third in starts in goal and saves. ... RSL has gone 0-2-1 since opening the season with a 2-0 win at San Jose. ... RSL has made the playoffs the past five seasons, the longest active streak in MLS. ... The referee is Mark Geiger.
Quotable: “If you’re 4-4-2 all the time ... it makes it difficult. So we have to make sure we’re dealing with that based on the way we want to play. And hopefully if things go right, they have to change to us. They have to worry about our wide guys, and they have to stretch their diamond out a little bit.” – Seattle assistant Brian Schmetzer on RSL’s 4-4-2 diamond formation.
Next: The Sounders open their CONCACAF Champions League semifinal series against Santos Laguna at 7 p.m. Tuesday at CenturyLink Field. Seattle returns to MLS action at April 13 when New England visits.Don Ruiz: 253-597-8808 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/soccer @donruiztnt email@example.com