SANDY — It’s a top-of-the-table clash with an asterisk.
No matter what happens this Saturday when league-leading Seattle hosts unbeaten Real Salt Lake (Ch. 30, 2 p.m. MDT), both clubs know they can't put their best foot forward.
Don’t be mistaken, both are deep enough to get results with reserves in key spots, but RSL isn’t the same team without Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman and Alvaro Saborio, just like Seattle isn’t the same when Clint Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin are missing.
All five are away on World Cup duty this weekend — even though Saborio broke his foot in Costa Rica on Thursday and will miss the World Cup — but the show must go on, even if depth is the No. 1 talking point.
Saturday will be the third match both squads have played without their World Cup contingent, and RSL defender Nat Borchers expects the quality to improve each week.
“We’re only going to get better because those guys have had two games already under their belts to play 90 and they’re really hitting the pavement running now,” said Borchers.
The first two games were more of a brisk walk.
RSL is 1-0-1 without Rimando, Beckerman and Saborio in the lineup, but last week it struggled with ideas on how to break down a very compact Dallas defense in a scoreless draw.
Seattle, meanwhile, is also 1-0-1 since Jurgen Klinsmann called in Dempsey, Yedlin and Brad Evans to the U.S. national team — even though Evans has since been released from U.S. camp and should be available Saturday.
Depending on who gets the upper hand in the first of three meetings between the clubs, both will certainly walk away looking forward to post-World Cup rematches at Rio Tinto Stadium on Aug. 16 and then again at CenturyLink Field on Sept. 12.
Regardless of its notable absences and injury concerns up top with Joao Plata and Devon Sandoval, RSL expects a result Saturday.
“We’ve gone a lot of different places in this league and gotten results with a lot of different people and personnel. Whoever is selected for the weekend will be more than ready to go,” said RSL midfielder Ned Grabavoy.
RSL has played some very big matches at CenturyLink Field through the years — most notably the 2009 MLS Cup final — and it’s an environment the players love to immerse themselves in.
“You feel like a professional soccer player going there. Maybe some other places you don’t so much,” joked Grabavoy. “When you win a championship game up there, the memory is there a little bit. That place holds a little special meaning to our club, and to all the players on this team that were there. So I think we’ve done well there for the most part in the past. I think this group usually likes to play in front of good crowds.”
Surprisingly, despite home crowds that approach 40,000 every match, Seattle has been vulnerable at home this year with two losses.
At the same time, even without Dempsey roaming the attacking third, Seattle is still very dangerous going forward with strikers like Obafemi Martins and Kenny Cooper, not to mention a trio of talented attack-minded midfielders.
Real Salt Lake is unbeaten through 12 matches this season — tied for an MLS record to begin a season — but this will arguably be its toughest test of the season.
“Anytime you’re playing against a really good team, especially at their place, you’re going to be under it for moments of the game,” said Grabavoy. “It could be five-, 10-minute stretches where the group just has to say, ‘Now we need to get into our shape and back our line off a little bit and make sure we don’t give anything away until we can swing momentum back in our direction.’”
After Saturday, RSL has a quick turnaround with a match at Columbus on Wednesday.