By Don Ruiz The News Tribune
We’re No. 2?
You don’t often see fans marching from a stadium, proudly waving a pair of fingers in the air.
They don’t make many movies about a team’s stretch run toward runner-up status.
However, second place in the MLS Western Conference is at stake tonight when Real Salt Lake visits Seattle. And coach Sigi Schmid seems to have convinced his Sounders that it is a prize worth winning.
“Certainly, if you can grab first, you try and grab first; but that opportunity slipped away,” Schmid said Tuesday. “So what’s important now is to get us in the best playoff position we can.”
That is second place, because San Jose already has clinched the top spot in the West. Second is currently held by Salt Lake, but a win by the Sounders tonight would move them even with RSL in the points race, with one game in hand. A loss would put Seattle six points behind with only six more points available as their regular season concludes with a home match Sunday against FC Dallas and then a road game October 28 at Los Angeles.
The eventual second-place finisher will be rewarded with home-field advantage in the deciding match of the opening two-game, aggregate-score playoff series against the No. 3 finisher. Second place also increases the chance of hosting rights for the MLS Cup, which this season will be played on the home pitch of the higher-seeded finalist.
Despite the stakes, Seattle and Salt Lake go into this match with key players out or questionable due to duty with their national teams. Among them are each club’s leading scorer: Alvaro Saborio (17 goals) for Salt Lake, and Eddie Johnson (14) for Seattle.
Perhaps equally problematic for Seattle is the absence of defender Adam Johansson (Sweden), which further weakens a back line ravaged by injuries to Leo Gonzalez (hamstring), Jhon Kennedy Hurtado (facial fracture) and perhaps Patrick Ianni, who left Tuesday training early to be checked for an undetermined health issue.
That means the Sounders once again will have to rely on their depth, with defenders such as Marc Burch and Zach Scott moving into the starting 11.
“During the beginning of the season there was a lot of injuries, but we tapped into (our depth) and did pretty well,” Scott said. “During the middle of the season we were able to stay pretty healthy and fielded the same team a couple of times, which is important as you get into the playoffs: that familiarity. Obviously now, with some national team call-ups and a couple of guys injured, we’re going to tap into that depth again. I think everybody’s ready.”
Behind the Sounders’ reworked back line will be goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, who leads MLS with a 0.74 goals-against average.
“If you have changes in the lineup, sometimes it works better, sometimes it works worse,” he said. “But with my guys in front of me, I’m not scared of anything because we are working now one year together, and I know them and they know me. I’m not even thinking about it, to be honest.”
Any goal should be precious, as Seattle has been shutout twice and RSL has scored only once in the two previous meetings between these clubs.
“We need to win this game to be close to the second place,” Seattle forward Fredy Montero said. “… It doesn’t matter if we don’t have the 11 players we were playing the last three or four games. All that matter is: Go to the field, try to play good and get those three points.”