Seattle Sounders vs. Real Salt Lake preview: Old dogs seek new tricks
Two old teams trying to get younger, faster, and worthy of silverware.
The Seattle Sounders may be fairly new to the MLS party, but they’ve made up for plenty of lost time since officially joining the league in 2009. The club has made the playoffs every year since, and has already filled the trophy cabinet with four US Open Cups and a Supporters Shield. The MLS Cup, the Holy Grail for many in American soccer, is the one trophy yet to elude the Sounders and head coach Sigi Schmid.
The 2015 campaign was one of many ups and downs, as the club had both a horrific time in the summer and a stellar stretch during the last chunk of the season. They brought in four major transfers in the summer window, all of which played a huge part in their push for the playoffs. The Sounders cruised past the LA Galaxy in the knockout round, but went out on penalties against FC Dallas in the Conference semifinals.
The biggest offseason roster move for the Sounders was losing Obafemi Martins, who left for Shanghai Shenhua in China mere weeks before the MLS season kicked off. While they have made a number of other minor signings, namely the much-hyped local forward Jordan Morris, the Sounders have yet to put another player into Martins’ vacated DP slot. They lost 1-0 to Sporting Kansas City last week in a match that could have easily ended 0-0 if not for Sounders right-back Oniel Fisher’s dismissal in the first half.
A club seemingly in transition, Real Salt Lake is searching for its identity as a number of its star players edge closer and closer to retirement. The closest RSL has been to silverware in recent seasons is 2013, as runners-up to both the MLS Cup and the US Open Cup. But in 2015, they finished second-to-last in the Western Conference, only edging out the Colorado Rapids.
Captain Kyle Beckerman, a stalwart in midfield for both Real and the U.S. national team, is 33 this season. Goalkeeper Nick Rimando and RSL’s leading goalscorer in 2015, Javier Morales, are both 36. Veteran players are important, and veteran players can win trophies for a club. But at some point, a team’s core has to start getting younger.
Real does have a youthful bright spot in Ecuadorian forward Joao Plata, who scored 13 goals in 2014 for the club,but 2015 didn’t go as well for Plata: after a preseason injury kept him out until May, he only managed four goals in 17 appearances. But if the first game of the season is any indication, Plata could be back and ready to go after scoring both goals in Real’s 2-2 draw with Orlando City on opening day.
That wild draw with Orlando, which included a red card for Real’s Demar Phillips, shows that RSL are a team to watch – even if it’s just for entertainment value. Their slick passing and attacking fluidity helped lead to both of Plata’s goals, the first of which was from a penalty earned when Armenian forward Yura Movsisyan latched onto a pass into the box and was hauled down. On the flip side, Real Salt Lake inexplicably folded after going up 2-0 and allowed Orlando City to score two goals in stoppage time to end the match in a draw.
Seattle will be without captain Brad Evans, who suffered a minor shoulder injury after clashing with Sporting KC forward Dom Dwyer and won’t be available this weekend. Both Erik Friberg and Tyrone Mears, who were unavailable against Sporting KC, were back in training at the end of the week and should be able to play against Real Salt Lake. Sounders are also without defender Roman Torres, who is recovering from an ACL injury last season.
Real Salt Lake will be without defender Demar Phillips, who was sent off for a second yellow card against Orlando City.
Player to watch: Jordan Morris (Seattle)
Jordan Morris’ big winter decision – to sign with his hometown club Seattle instead of staying at Stanford for his senior year or signing with a European club like Werder Bremen – created a hype train that some outside Seattle find hard to fathom. But the press conference announcing Morris’s decision was an absolute circus. The fans are excited for Morris, the club is excited about Morris, and even Morris himself seems pretty astounded that he gets to play for the team he grew up watching from the stands.
Preseason went quite well for Morris, as he impressed in a number of matches and scored a few goals along the way. He was especially impressive and racked up a couple exists in a 4-0 friendly win over LA Galaxy. With Obafemi Martins leaving, the expectations have gone even higher. Instead of a rotation player or benchwarmer, Morris has been thrust into the role of starter, taking the place of one of the best players to play in MLS, let alone Seattle.
It’s been a transition for the young forward, and though mistakes have been made, he’s shown glimpses of the quality that laid the foundation for the hype. He came extremely close to scoring on opening day against Sporting KC, but the moment must have gotten to him as he blazed his shot over the bar. His speed and technical ability will give Real Salt Lake fits, and they’ll have to be careful not to repeat last week’s red card blunder when trying to shackle Morris.
Sigi Schmid is one of the most storied managers in MLS history: holding the record for most regular season wins in league history, he has a slew of trophies from his jobs with the LA Galaxy, Columbus Crew, and the Sounders.
Schmid is sometimes criticized by fans as being stubborn and boring, sticking with his preferred formulas instead of taking risks with tactics and team selection. But this notion has been challenged in the past few months, as Schmid spent much of Seattle’s preseason getting his team accustomed to a formation he hadn’t really used with the team in the past. Now that he has three strong forwards, at least one speedy full-back, and a couple of anchoring midfielders, he has moved to a 4-3-3 instead of the 4-4-2 variations he’d used in the last few years to cater to the Dempsey-Martins duo.
Two decades Schmid’s junior, Jeff Cassar is starting his third season as head coach. After six years on the RSL backroom staff, he stepped up to the hotseat when Jason Kreis left for New York following a 2013 season of near-misses in the MLS Cup and Open Cup.
Cassar’s first season in charge was fine, if unspectacular, as RSL finished third in the Western Conference but was later knocked out of the MLS Cup Playoffs by LA in the conference semifinals. Last year was much worse for Cassar, as RSL lost a handful of key players before the season and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Facts and figures
• The home team has won the last eight MLS meetings between Real Salt Lake and Seattle.
• Real Salt Lake is unbeaten in its last five regular-season home MLS matches against Seattle (W4 D1). Its most recent regular season home loss to the Sounders was on May 28, 2011 (1-2).
• Following its 2-2 road draw with Orlando City on March 6, Real Salt Lake is looking to start the season unbeaten in its first two games in MLS play for a franchise-record third-consecutive season.
• Since joining the league at the start of MLS 2009, Seattle has only had one season in which it lost both of its first two MLS matches (2011) and just two seasons where it went without a win in one of its first two matches of the MLS season (2011 and 2013).
• The Sounders had just four road wins in all of MLS 2015, which was tied for its fewest since it joined the league at the start of the 2009 season (2012).
• RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando is 2nd in all-time MLS minutes played at 35,343, and midfielder Kyle Beckerman is 4th on the list with 31,048 minutes played.
• Sigi Schmid has the most regular season wins of any MLS coach in history: 222.
• Jordan Morris was the first college player to be called up to the US national team since Chris Albright in 1999 when Jurgen Klinsmann brought him into camp in 2014.
As both teams are in a bit of a transition period and need time to get into a groove, this one will end at a fairly tame 1-1.