By Don Ruiz The News Tribune
SALT LAKE CITY — During the past four seasons, the Seattle Sounders have played their 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 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) liked 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, 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 straight times in the single-elimination U.S. Open Cup, winning three championships before losing the 2012 final in August at 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 in the 2011-12 quarterfinals when even a draw would have gotten them through.
Finally, 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 resume.
“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 own 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, against Monterrey (Mexico) in the 2011 CCL final, and against Herediano (Costa Rica) last month in CCL group play.
However, RSL faces fewer questions about its postseason performance. For one thing, the club went all the way to the MLS Cup title in 2009. And it was just last season when 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 naive 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 a 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.”