MLS Preview: Sounders and Rapids both banged up

Real Salt Lake finished the 2009 regular season at 11-12-7 but won of its last three to barely squeeze into the playoffs, and eventually beat L.A. Galaxy on penalty kicks in the final. Houston parlayed solid finishes into the 2011 and 2012 title games though it lost both of them to the Galaxy. Last year, Portland won four of its last five regular-season games and in the playoffs kept on rolling all the way to the crown.

But no team has risen from the mire as powerfully as Sounders 2016, which won only five of its first 16 games yet is perched on the cusp of its first MLS Cup appearance. To get there, it must prevail against the league’s top defensive unit; Colorado’s 32 goals conceded were seven less than any other team, and it advanced on penalty kicks against the Galaxy after the two-leg series yielded just one goal for each team.

“I think these games are going to be extremely close, and it's just going to come down to which players on whatever team make plays,” said Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer, the longtime assistant to Sigi Schmid who has a record of 8-3-4 (including playoffs) since taking over for him in late July.

The long international break has not cleared up injury issues; both teams are banged up and won’t be at full strength for the first leg Tuesday at CenturyLink Field.

GASHI DOUBTFUL. The sidelining of Tim Howard puts backup keeper Zac MacMath squarely in the spotlight, and the Rapids offense is also impaired by the injured ankle of attacker Shkelzen Gashi, who is probably out for the opener in Seattle. Gashi led the team with a modest nine goals in the regular season and hit a long-range, playoff missile against the Galaxy.

In his absence, head coach Pablo Mastroeni can opt for speed rather than guile: Marlon Hairston and Dominique Badji can take Gashi’s spot on the wing in support of striker Kevin Doyle, or he could use one of them up top instead of Doyle and deploy the other out wide. During the regular season Badji scored six goals and Hairston logged the same number of assists, which are decent numbers for a team that scored only 39 goals. Doyle also scored six goals but only two since the All-Star break, both of them against San Jose Oct. 13.

Much of the playmaking burden will probably fall on Jermaine Jones, who played for the U.S. in both World Cup qualifiers last week. He’s could line up in front of twin central midfielders Sam Cronin and Michael Azira, an ex-Sounder who -- like Marco Pappa -- has played a key role since joining the Rapids last winter. Cronin and Azira are very capable on both sides of the midfield line. Dillon Powers is an attacking option in central midfield. 

“Sure, I'll start out by giving a shout out to Mr. Mike Azira who has done a tremendous job for them,” said Schmetzer. “I'm really happy for Mike and the way it's turned out in Colorado. You add Cronin, Jones, they have a very formidable midfield trio, so it will be a game where a lot of those plays that can make a difference in a game, a lot of it will hinge around which group of three can kind of maintain tempo, dictate tempo, make some plays, get their team involved, get their teammates involved.”

LOWDOWN ON LODEIRO. There’s no issue for Seattle regarding an offensive catalyst; midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro has lit up the league since he first stepped on the field July 31. He’s skillful and creative and can also score goals: eight during the regular season, three more in the playoffs. He's a deceptive dribbler and dangerous on crosses and free kicks.

Yet just as vital in the Seattle revival has been the play of his midfield mates: rock-em, sock-em No. 6 Osvaldo Alonso, and partner Cristian Roldan. Shortly after taking over for Schmid, Schmetzer urged Alonso, one of three players remaining from the first MLS Sounders squad in 2009, to up his game, and the 31-year-old responded. Brad Evans and defender Zach Scott, who will retire at the end of the season, are the other two originals still around.

“Each one of them would be deserving of an interview on their own,” said Schmetzer. “But since you asked about Ozzie, I'll tell you that Ozzie is having an MVP type of season. I think he has really refocused, really I think he's dedicated himself to being a pro on and off the field, and it shows in his play.

“I made him captain in Brad Evans’ absence. He's taken over that role very well. He cares about the team.  You obviously see in the press about Nico and the talent that he has. One of the guys that has made Ozzie a lot better has been the play of Cristian Roldan, and even Erik Friberg when he's filled in there for me. So I think that group as a whole has done really well for the club.”

 In the series, Schmetzer could recall veteran Evans, who has been hobbled by back and calf injuries. Fighting to get healthy are wide men Andreas Ivanschitz (sprained knee) and Alvaro Fernandez (hamstring).

Seattle’s main question mark is Jordan Morris, who set a league record for American rookies by scoring 12 goals. He is recovering from a hamstring injury suffered FC Dallas in game two of the conference finals.  “If he's healthy, he's going to play,” said Schmetzer. “So we are just keeping the fires burning, trying to get him on the field as quickly as we can.

For the Rapids -- besides Gashi -- Pappa’s ouchy hamstring kept him out of the Galaxy series but he traveled with the team to Seattle.

TALE OF THREE KEEPERS. The injury to Howard revisited the plight of MacMath, the former Union and U.S. U-17 keeper who posted six shutouts and a 0.76 goals-allowed average before giving way. He did well when he played, but the first half of a regular season is not the playoffs. Still one of his games was a 1-0 victory at CenturyLink Field May 21.

“I think, like I said earlier, the 34 games of the regular season were a fantastic dress rehearsal for us,” said Mastroeni, who had to persuade MacMath to stick around when Howard took over. “And a guy like Zac coming into the goal, he's familiar to the back line; he's familiar to the group – a great teammate of Tim's. So this is not about individuals. This is about a collective effort in finding a way to beat a great Seattle team in two legs.”

In the first leg, especially, the Sounders intend to pressure MacMath as much as possible with crosses, through balls, and chips over the back line. His communication with teammates, especially centerbacks Axel Sjoberg and Jared Watts, is essential. Seattle overpowered FC Dallas at the Link by scoring three goals in eight minutes of the first leg of the conference semifinals, and will seek to find out early if MacMath is nervous or rusty.

Sounders keeper Stefan Frei has overcome his own adversity in MLS. Injuries interrupted his career after several solid seasons (2009-11) in Toronto, and since taking over the No. 1 jersey in Seattle, he’s registered 27 regular-seasons shutouts as well as two in this year’s playoffs.

During his college days at Cal, Frei went to Chicago see Howard, then with Everton, play a summer friendly in Chicago.  “I trained with him for a little bit, and my mom actually ended up taking a picture of us training together which I had him sign,” said Frei.

“But I remember him signing it and writing on it ‘dream big,’ and that's something that always stuck with me. So even in a moment where I was already very close to the brink of becoming a professional goalkeeper, I was in college at that point, he still gave me extra motivation and made me feel like this is a guy that helps me to make that next step.”

For both teams the next step is a major milestone: either the Rapids return to the title game or the Sounders finally play in their first.
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