Real Salt Lake jumped back into first place in the MLS Western Conference after beating the Seattle Sounders on Saturday.The Seattle Sounders may be in the midst of what feels like a special season, but Real Salt Lake served notice Saturday that it should still be considered the team to beat in Major League Soccer’s stacked Western Conference.
Playing without MVP candidate and star playmaker Javier Morales, Salt Lake still managed to put on an impressive display at Rio Tinto Stadium, outplaying the Sounders on the way to a 2-1 victory that helped RSL climb over Seattle into first place in the West.
The final score may have been close, but it didn’t properly reflect just how thoroughly RSL outplayed the Sounders, who could be excused a bit for coming out flat after having just played in a U.S. Open Cup semifinal versus Chicago on Wednesday (a match Seattle won 6-0).
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The Sounders were also missing suspended star Obafemi Martins, but that was hardly an excuse for what was a rather lackluster display. You could excuse the performance given the midweek game, but Seattle hasn’t put together a truly impressive game in league play in a month. Even last week’s 2-0 win versus Houston wasn’t a thing of beauty, and more a case of the Sounders earning an ugly win than exerting the dominance we had grown accustomed to through the first half of the season.
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Now, Seattle has lost four of six matches, and the Sounders have seen a once imposing lead atop the Western Conference vanish as RSL shook off its own midseason slump to regain the form that had the reigning Western Conference champion unbeaten through its first 12 matches of the season.
With Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman back from the World Cup, Real Salt Lake is now riding a five-match unbeaten streak (3-0-2), and could get even stronger with the looming return of Costa Rican striker Alvaro Saborio, as well as the arrival of Argentine forward Sebastian Jaime. Coach Jeff Cassar has led the team through a seamless transition after the departure of former coach Jason Kreis to New York City FC, and he actually has the currently RSL squad playing better than the team that came within a missed penalty kick of winning MLS Cup last season.
Another factor to consider in RSL’s recent surge is the recent play of young midfielder Luis Gil. The U.S. youth national team regular, who was part of Jurgen Klinsmann’s U.S. national team training camp in January, struggled with a leg injury that sidelined him in April and early May. He eventually regained his starting role for RSL in June and has some good glimpses in recent weeks. He scored with the U.S. Under-23 national team, and delivered a stunning goal against Club Tijuana in a friendly Tuesday.
Against Seattle, Gil slid into the vacant playmaker role left by Morales and showed the qualities that have made him one of the best young American midfielders in the U.S. national team pool. He helped set up the eventual game-winning goal, delivering a beautiful pass that forced Osvaldo Alonso into an own goal.
As for the Sounders, it isn’t time to start pressing the panic button just yet, even if the team’s recent slide does feel a little bit like last season dramatic late-season collapse. The reality of Seattle’s season is that, at the moment, the Sounders sit just out of first place, but have two games in hand, and they have also reached their fifth U.S. Open Cup final in six years.
Almost every other team in MLS would trade places with Seattle right now given those accomplishments, but the Sounders are acutely aware how little any of that will mean if they suffer another late-season swoon and fail to deliver the team’s first MLS Cup title.
Anything less than an MLS Cup will feel like a letdown, even if the Sounders win a fourth U.S. Open Cup. Given what the team has spent on salaries, and the amount of talent on the roster, Seattle must make a deep run or risk heading into another offseason full of head scratching and second guessing.
RSL is also feeling some pressure to win. It has been five years since Real Salt Lake won its lone MLS Cup title, and its core nucleus is pushing into its 30s. Throw in the fact that general manager Garth Lagerway — the architect of Major League Soccer’s best example of "Moneyball"-like success despite limited spending — could leave the club this winter, and there has to be some urgency for a club that has played some of the best soccer in MLS for the past half-dozen years.
RSL isn’t playing like a team feeling the heat though. Instead, Salt Lake is playing like a team capable of taking care of the business it left unfinished in December, when it came as close as you can come to winning a title without actually winning it.