About 50 minutes into the first meeting this season between Seattle Sounders FC and Real Salt Lake, Fabian Espindola scored a goal.
Over the next 220 minutes of their three meetings, neither team scored again.
That scoreless streak lives on tonight as the clubs open a two-game, aggregate-score MLS playoff series at CenturyLink Field.
“We created some chances in a couple of games that we played them, and we didn’t finish those opportunities,” Seattle coach Sigi Schmid said. “And so we’ve just got to make sure that we’re good around the goal, take advantage of set pieces. I think when you get into games like this – playoff series – then corner kicks and free kicks take on maybe a little bit of a bigger role.”
Any corner kick, free kick, breakaway, header, chance or blunder could be crucial – and potentially decisive – with so many signs pointing to a low-scoring series:
• Salt Lake scored one goal on Seattle, and the Sounders scored none against RSL over their three regular-season meetings.
• Seattle ended the regular season with the second-best goals-against average in Major League Soccer (0.97), while RSL was third (1.03).
• Sounders goalkeeper Michael Gspurning led the league with a 0.73 goals-against average – third-best in league history – while Salt Lake’s Nick Rimando was second in shutouts, third in wins and fourth in goals-against average.
• RSL allowed three goals over the final 990 minutes of its regular season.
• Salt Lake hasn’t scored in its last 331 minutes across all competitions.
• The Sounders are expected to open the playoffs without their leading scorer, Eddie Johnson, who is recovering from an adductor strain.
• Salt Lake was shut out in its last two regular-season games, while Seattle was shut out in its final match.
That latter result – the Sounders’ 1-0 defeat at Los Angeles on Sunday – gave RSL the No. 2 Western Conference seeding and dropped Seattle to No. 3.
That is why the series is opening at CenturyLink Field and concluding Nov. 8 at RSL’s Rio Tinto Stadium.
That configuration gives the higher seed the supposed advantage of ending the series on its home turf. However, several Sounders said they are happy to juggle the order that didn’t work for them last season, when RSL ousted Seattle despite the lower seeding.
“My personal opinion is it’s better to start at home,” midfielder Steve Zakuani said. “We didn’t obviously throw the L.A. game away on purpose, but I think in this league it’s so tight that when you have to go into the second leg coming from a deficit it’s very tough, like we did last year.”
Last season, the Sounders tumbled into a 3-0 hole in the opening game at Salt Lake, and their 2-0 home win wasn’t enough to pull them out.
The signs this season don’t seem to point to a series where goals flow quite that freely.
However, Schmid said that won’t figure into his game management tonight.
“It’s about winning the game at home and getting at least a tie on the road – and maybe winning on the road. If we do that we advance. It doesn’t matter if that’s 1-0 or if that’s 2-0,” Schmid said. “So obviously for us it depends on the time in the game. Are you up 1-0 with three minutes to go, five minutes to go? Yeah, you might play a little differently at that stage. But being up 1-0 after 15 or 20 minutes is probably not going to alter all that much what you’re doing.”
NO. 2 REAL SALT LAKE (17-11-6; 57 POINTS) AT NO. 3 SEATTLE SOUNDERS FC (15-8-11; 56 POINTS)
7 p.m., CenturyLink Field
TV: Ch. 6/16, NBCSN. RADIO: 97.3-FM, 99.3-FM (Spanish)
CLUB LEADERS: For Salt Lake: goals 17, Alvaro Saborio; assists 9, Javier Morales; shots 87, Saborio; shots on goal 40, Saborio; goal-against average 1.06, Nick Rimando. For Seattle: G 14, Eddie Johnson; A 13, Mauro Rosales; S 126, Fredy Montero; SOG 46, Montero; GAA 0.73, Michael Gspurning.
HEAD TO HEAD: RSL leads in league play, 3-2-4. This season, RSL went 1-0-2, with a 1-0 win May 12 in Seattle followed by a pair of scoreless draws home and away. Last season, RSL took a 3-2 aggregate-score victory from the Sounders in the first round of the playoffs.
NOTES: This is the first of a two-game, aggregate-score playoff series. The winner will be determined by the combined scores of the home and away matches. If goals are even at the end of the second match, there will be 30 minutes of added time. If the tie remains, the series will be determined by penalty kicks. Road goals have no special status. Seattle is 0-3 in playoff series and 0-2-1 in opening matches. This is Salt Lake’s fifth straight playoff appearance, the longest ongoing streak in MLS. Seattle and Los Angeles are the only others to make the playoffs the past four seasons. Gspurning led MLS in goals-against average. Rimando was fourth. Seattle ended its regular season with a 1-0 loss at Los Angeles. The club hasn’t lost back-to-back games in 66 matches, the longest stretch in league history. Only the lower stadium bowl will be open, creating a capacity of about 35,000 seats. Tickets remain available. The referee is Hilario Grajeda.
QUOTABLE: “It’s something new for me. In Europe, we don’t have (playoffs), so normally the season, you know when it’s over. This is something different. All is coming down to the playoffs. It’s like you start a new season. I’m very excited.” – Gspurning
NEXT: The playoff series will resolve at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah.
Don Ruiz: 253-597-8808 email@example.com/soccer