By Ridge Mahoney
The Sounders haven't scored in three games against Real Salt Lake this season and their top scorer is likely unavailable because of injury. If this ratchets up the pressure on Seattle, which hasn't advanced out of the first playoff round in each of its three previous postseason appearances, Coach Sigi Schmid believes his players can turn it into a positive.
“Pressure to me is an opportunity,” said Schmid, whose team takes a 0-1-2 record this season against RSL into the Western Conference semifinal first leg Friday (10 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network) at CenturyLink Field. “You don’t have pressure unless there’s an opportunity, so this is an opportunity for us to do well.
“The guys have been through it for three years, they know they want to do better than they’ve done in the past three years, and so that’s the pressure that they’re keeping on themselves. As [Fredy Montero] said, it’s a good pressure because it means they want to get after it, they want to go for it, they want to take hold of this opportunity.”
Schmid likely won’t have the opportunity to field forward Eddie Johnson, who scored 14 league goals but hobbled off the field in the season finale against Los Angeles Sunday with a hamstring strain. Also unavailable because of injury are two members of the defense, starting left back Leo Gonzalez and centerback Pat Ianni.
The big question, though, is Johnson, whose absence would leave a large void up top and heap a lot of pressure to score on forward Montero, who has smoothed out some of his inconsistent tendencies this season but his still prone to invisible spells and petulant pouts. Yet Montero cranked it up often enough to finish second on the team with 13 goals and lead it in assists with eight.
“We have to see for sure,” said Schmid. “Chances are [Johnson] might not be able to play tomorrow, but he went through a lot more today, and he’s up working with [fitness coach] Dave [Tenney] right now, so we’ll make the final determination tomorrow before the game. For sure, we think the second game isn’t going to be an issue at all. [Friday] we’ll have to see.”
Under the unbalanced schedule the league adopted this year, the teams played three times and generated the amazing total of one goal. Fabian Espindola scored the only goal of a 1-0 RSL win at CenturyLink Field May 12, and 16 days ago the game ended 0-0. (They also played a 0-0 game at Rio Tinto Stadium on July 4 that featured a disallowed goal by Alvaro Saborio.)
The Sounders played the final hour of Oct. 17 game a man down following the dismissal of defender Zach Scott, and Schmid believes lessons learned from that match can be applied Friday. “We were quite happy with the 0-0 draw considering the obstacles we had to deal with in that game,” he said. “With a man down for 60 minutes, the number of injuries we had in the back, with Brad Evans playing right back and then center back, playing and still creating chances even playing a man down. We’re very pleased with what we did there. We’ve got to build upon that and play with 11 men and do well.”
Conditions will be less than optimal. Rain has been falling all week and is expected for Friday; a slickened artificial surface marred by NFL field markings, necessitated by a Seahawks game against Minnesota Sunday, could produce a helter-skelter, frantic game despite the experienced, composed players that dot both rosters.
General Manager Adrian Hanauer expects a crowd of about 35,000. The game is not part of the Sounders’ season-ticket package, and playing on a Friday instead of Saturday or Sunday might cost “some fans” at the gate. Nevertheless, Hanauer anticipates a typically large and loud crowd, for the fans know as well as everybody else connected with the organization what’s at stake.
Seattle stumbled in the playoffs last year to RSL, thus extending its postseason disappointment. Fans are currently conducting a vote on whether Hanauer continues as general manager, yet he’s emphatic he’s not concerned. The outcome of this playoff series is anxiety enough, despite a league-record average attendance of 43,144 and notable achievements on the field.
“You’d think we’ve done enough for our season to be a success,” he says. “We advanced out of our group of the Concacaf Champions League, we played in our fourth straight Open Cup [which it lost to Sporting Kansas City on penalty kicks], and have made the playoffs in each of our four seasons.
“But we all know what’s at stake. We want to win a playoff series and we want to win MLS Cup. I can think of probably 15 teams who would like to be where we are, but we’re not where we want to be.”