SALT LAKE CITY – Over its four seasons in MLS, Seattle Sounders FC has played its share of must-win games – and won most of them.
We’re not talking about merely big games or important games, or really-really-want-to-win games. We’re talking about games where either you win or you’re out.
We’re talking about games like the one tonight, when Seattle meets Real Salt Lake in a match where the winner continues to the Western Conference finals, and the loser looks to next season.
“I know that during the season (the media) like to say, ‘This has got to be a must-win game.’ No, it’s not,” coach Sigi Schmid said. “(Tonight) is a must-win game. It’s a definite must-win game. Whether you win it on PKs (penalty kicks), whether you win it in overtime, whether you win it 1-0, or whether you win it 3-2, it doesn’t matter. It’s a game you’ve got to win at the end of the day.”
The Sounders did that 19 consecutive times in the single-elimination U.S. Open Cup, winning three championships before losing the 2012 final in August at Sporting Kansas City.
But the Sounders also have been eliminated from both of their CONCACAF Champions League appearances: being knocked out by Monterrey in the 2010-11 group stage and losing to Santos Laguna, 6-1, in the 2011-12 quarterfinals when even a draw would have gotten them through.
Most important, the Sounders have never won an MLS playoff aggregate-score series – meaning they have either lost the decisive leg (2009 and 2010) or didn’t win by enough to advance (2011).
That playoff blot is something the club would like to remove from its résumé.
“That’s something that we’ve aimed at and something that we want to do and that our full attention is dedicated to at this stage,” Schmid said. “But sometimes I also feel there’s this thing of, well, without that we’re not a good team. I don’t think that’s entirely an accurate statement, either. We’ve shown ourselves to be a consistently good team, and we’ll continue to do that. But yes, we need to win a playoff series.”
Real Salt Lake also has had its share of troubles in similar situations – even on its home pitch.
The club failed to advance at home against New York in the 2008 MLS conference finals, against Dallas in the 2010 conference semifinals, lost to Monterrey (Mexico) in the 2011 CCL final, and against failed to defeat Herediano (Costa Rica) last month in CCL group play.
Still, RSL faces fewer questions about its postseason performance. For one thing, the club won the MLS Cup in 2009. And last season, Salt Lake eliminated the Sounders in the opening round of the playoffs.
That time, the Sounders were the higher seed. But they fell behind 3-0 in the opening leg in Utah and couldn’t quite catch up with a 2-0 win in Seattle.
“We didn’t play well and they punished us early and got on top and we could never grab the game back,” Schmid said of the 2011 first leg at RSL. “We were a little bit nave in how we tried to grab the game back. But I think we learned from there and we’re a better team.”
This season, goals have been much harder to come by.
Salt Lake won the regular-season series 1-0-2 on the strength of a 1-0 win in May and a pair of scoreless draws. Then the clubs opened this playoff series with a scoreless draw last week at CenturyLink Field, setting up the must-win match for both clubs tonight.
“We are pretty excited because this is 90 minutes where it could be more than that or that’s it,” Seattle forward Fredy Montero said. “We are happy to be here in the playoffs. But at the same time, we need to go forward. To keep moving on we need to win this game.”
NO. 3 SEATTLE SOUNDERS FC AT NO. 2 REAL SALT LAKE
7 p.m., Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, Utah.
TV: Ch. 6/16, Root Sports (outside of Seattle area), NBCSN.
CLUB LEADERS: For Seattle: G 14, Eddie Johnson; A 13, Mauro Rosales; S 126, Fredy Montero; SOG 46, Montero; GAA 0.73, Michael Gspurning. For RSL: G 17, Alvaro Saborio; A 9, Javier Morales; S 87, Saborio; SOG 40, Saborio; GAA 1.06, Nick Rimando.
HEAD TO HEAD: The teams opened this series with a scoreless draw in Seattle on Friday. RSL won the regular-season series 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, including a 3-0 win at Rio Tinto.
NOTES: The winner advances to the Western Conference finals. The loser’s season ends. ... There must be a result. If the game is tied at the end of regulation, there will be 30 minutes of added time. If the tie remains, the game will be decided by penalty kicks. ... Johnson is expected to play after missing Game One with a leg strain. Rosales (hamstring) traveled with the team, but his playing status is questionable. ... RSL has the only goals scored over the four games these teams have played this season. Neither has scored in the last 309 minutes of the series. ... Overall, RSL hasn’t allowed a goal in 343 minutes and hasn’t scored one in 332 minutes. ... The Sounders are 0-3 in playoff series. They are 0-3 in road playoff games, losing by a combined 6-1. ... Midfielder Osvaldo Alonso is the only Sounder to have played every minute of every playoff match. ... RSL is 1-4 in home elimination games across all competitions. ... Seattle’s Brad Evans and Jeff Parke received yellow cards in the first leg, as did Salt Lake’s Morales and Kyle Beckerman. All four players are caution away from a one-game suspension. ...The referee is Chris Penso.
QUOTABLE: “With their home crowd behind them they’re going to probably feel a little more of a responsibility to attack; and if they attack a little more that gives us a little bit of space to counter into. Which way that they approach it, I don’t know. I think the first 20 minutes are going to be very important.” – Sounders coach Sigi Schmid.
NEXT: The winner of the match would face the Los Angeles Galaxy for the Western Conference finals starting Sunday in Carson, Calif.
Don Ruiz: 253-597-8808 firstname.lastname@example.org/soccer