Real Salt Lake visits Seattle Sounders Friday to kick off the semifinal round. Here are five points to watch ahead of the first leg at CenturyLink Field:
1. Will Eddie Johnson play?: Johnson suffered a left adductor strain in the 1-0 defeat at Los Angeles on Sunday night. Seattle coach Sigi Schmid hasn’t ruled him out of this match, but he probably won’t feature from the start. If Johnson isn’t in the lineup, then Seattle loses its most direct option up front and turns into a side that must operate more intricately in the final third to score goals.
2. If Johnson can’t play, then how will Schmid replace him?: The veteran boss isn’t short of options. Sammy Ochoa offers the physical presence (if not the speed) Johnson usually provides. David Estrada and Steve Zakuani present options to stretch the Real Salt Lake back four. Mauro Rosales supplies ingenuity if he slides up from his usual spot on the right side of midfield. All four players represent viable choices to fill the void. It is up to Schmid to figure out how to best use the pieces available to him.
3. Fullbacks versus wingers: The key tactical matchup likely involves Seattle’s wide players against RSL’s fullbacks. RSL boss Jason Kreis asks a lot of Tony Beltran and Chris Wingert. They usually assume much of the defensive responsibility against the wide players with RSL’s narrow diamond midfield (admittedly, Will Johnson scurries about to provide additional support). The fullback duo must get their positioning and their spacing right to keep Seattle from moving quickly through midfield and piling on the pressure.
4. Clever movements: This maxim applies to both sides. Seattle must ensure Rosales and Christian Tiffert drift into the proper spaces to exert a significant influence on the game. Tiffert has played on the left recently and might stay there to ensure he receives the necessary operating room to provide dangerous service into the front two. RSL usually thrives when Fabian Espindola and Javier Morales float into wider areas (Espindola loves to drift over to the left, for example) to carve out time and space in possession. Morales, in particular, must find a way to avoid Osvaldo Alonso’s constant attention to offer his usual dose of creativity.
5. Margins of error and victory: Consider the series last year somewhat instructive. RSL accumulated a three-goal cushion in the first leg at Rio Tinto Stadium and then held on for dear life in the second leg in Seattle to progress to the Western Conference final. The visitors cannot afford to slip into the hole the Sounders faced last year. Right now, they just aren’t prolific enough in front of goal to eliminate that sort of deficit. If Seattle can score a couple of times on home soil to create a cushion to take to Utah, then the Sounders may set themselves up for a first berth in the Western Conference Final.