Last year, as readers may recall, the Seattle Sounders entered the playoffs with the second best record in MLS, just four points shy of the Supporters Shield, and carrying a 7-2-1 record in their final ten matches. They faced a Real Salt Lake side ten points behind Seattle, finishing the season with a six-match winless streak (including a 1-1 draw to Portland in the season finale), scoring just three goals in that span.
As the saying goes, the playoffs changed everything, as Seattle failed even to get a shot on target and let RSL roll to what would be an insurmountable 3-0 lead in the first leg.
And there was much rejoicing among Portland-based bloggers. For the third time in as many years of Seattle's MLS era, the Sounders had qualified for the playoffs only to be knocked out in the first round.
The Schadenfreude in another Sounder choke wouldn't be as sweet in 2012. Even as much as many Portland fans continue to regard them as the evil empire, the Seattle Sounders have come down considerably from their 2011 high.
They finished third in the Western Conference, this time behind RSL, and seventh overall. They fell short of the US Open Cup for the first time in their MLS existence. They failed to defend the Cascadia Cup.
If they want take anything at all from 2012, the Sounders need to win the MLS Cup.
So, first fixture: at home versus RSL. These two teams have whipped up a bit of a rivalry over the years, and this year was no different: 13 cards were shown in three matches between RSL and Seattle in 2012. But notably, just one goal separates them over the season series -- a single goal from Fabian Espindola in the 51st minute on May 12, the teams' first meeting of the year. In 219 minutes since, neither team has put the ball past either keeper.
Part of that scoring drought can be chalked up to both teams' relative offensive inconsistency. Seattle and RSL, respectively, are fifth and seventh in MLS in goals scored. RSL suffered eleven shut-outs in 2012, second among playoff teams only to the Vancouver Whitecaps. Seattle finished tied for third with eight.
But a big part of the goallessness can be credited to each team's defensive midfielder, Osvaldo Alonso and Kyle Beckerman. With both teams' back lines in flux during the season due to injuries, Alonso and Beckerman came up big, as has come to be expected of them over the years, helping Seattle and RSL finish second and third, respectively, in goals allowed.
And with both teams' preferred starting backlines most likely available (with the exception of Leo Gonzalez, still listed as questionable) heading into tonight's match, expect yet another low-scoring game.
All factors considered, the Seattle-RSL matchup looks every bit as close as a playoff series should be. We're giving Seattle a slight edge: a 40.3% chance of winning the first leg, with a 26.3% likelihood of a draw.
5/12: Seattle 0:1 Salt Lake
7/4: Salt Lake 0:0 Seattle
10/17: Seattle 0:0 Salt Lake
Seattle: 2 points, 0 goals
Salt Lake: 5 points, 1 goal