SEATTLE — Beginning with the opening minute of tonight's playoff clash against visiting Real Salt Lake, the Seattle Sounders will be a desperate team.
They'll be desperate to score an early goal. Desperate to score at least three goals. Desperate to back up a great 2011 regular season with their first series win in playoff history. Desperate to save face after being thoroughly dismantled by RSL 3-0 in the first leg at Rio Tinto Stadium last weekend.
Seattle has 90 minutes to make up that 3-0 deficit in the aggregate series finale, which begins at 8 p.m. (MDT) and will be broadcast on ESPN2. Real Salt Lake can advance to the Western Conference final with a win, tie or even a two-goal loss.
"I would expect them to come out with an incredibly high amount of energy, and they're going to have to take a lot of risks. If they want to get all the goals back, they're going to have to take a lot risks," said RSL coach Jason Kreis.
No team in MLS playoff history has enjoyed a 3-0 cushion after the first leg, but despite the lead, Kreis believes it's important his team doesn't play too relaxed.
"I think we need to approach it as we would any other game, to be completely honest. I know that could be just speak, but for me we've got to approach it that we're 0-0 or maybe 1-0," said Kreis. "I think our players know what's expected of them tactically when we have a lead, but I think it could be a huge disaster if we approached it that we had a cushion."
In an effort to drum up hope for a monumental comeback, stories are circulating throughout Seattle about San Jose's epic comeback against a Sigi Schmid-coached Los Angeles team back in 2003. After losing Game 1, 2-0, and then conceding two early goals in Game 2 to fall behind 4-0 on aggregate, the Earthquakes scored four goals to force overtime and then prevailed 5-4 in extra time.
Seattle led MLS with 57 goals this season, so a comeback is certainly possible.
"I firmly believe we're playing the most dangerous team in the league. They scored the most goals this season, and if any team can come back from this, it would be Seattle," said Kreis.
The Sounders scored three or more goals in eight games this year, which seems to be the No. 1 talking point about the likelihood of a comeback. In scoring all those goals, though, Seattle took risks at the back and conceded goals in all but two of its eight 3-goal games.
Even though RSL insists it won't bunker in, Seattle has no choice but to push forward and RSL should have plenty of counter-attacking opportunities for Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola.
Kreis is confident his strikers can bag a goal with as well as they've played in the past few matches.
"Both (Sabo) and Fabi for the last couple of games have been working very, very hard, and I think we're such a better team show when those guys show the level of commitment they have over the last couple of matches to close things down and to chase lost causes and do all the dirty work that people don't probably often think about that forwards need to do," said Kreis.
The big concern for RSL entering the match is the health of center backs Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers. Both left last Saturday's playoff game with injured quadriceps and they're questionable for the second game.
"We rely on those two players big for this team, so it's going to be tough, but we have a lot of faith in the guys who are on the bench or for whoever is going to fill in for them," said RSL captain Kyle Beckerman.
Chris Schuler has started 16 matches this year and would be the obvious first choice off the bench if either Olave or Borchers are unavailable. If neither are cleared, Rauwshan McKenzie is next on the depth chart at center back. He only played in two matches all year, though, and the coaching staff might consider playing Chris Wingert or Robbie Russell in the middle instead.
"It's not ideal for us to lose two guys of that caliber who have kind of been the backbone of our defense here for a couple years, but that's just the way it goes," said Wingert.
In 2008 and 2009, RSL won its conference semifinal playoff opener at home, and then got the result on the road it needed both times to advance.
RSL on the air
Western Conference semifinals
Real Salt Lake at Seattle Sounders
Tonight, 8 p.m. MT
CenturyLink Field, Seattle
Radio: 700 AM, 1600 AM
NOTE: RSL won first leg, 3-0