Three years ago, the Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake rose together and were MLS success stories on their way to bigger and better things. The two clubs were supposed to be a sign of a new dawn in MLS. The spotlight was growing brighter and they were the future of the league.
But the future is here now and the Sounders and RSL are hardly kings of MLS. Instead, their flaws are under a microscope and when they square off in the Western Conference semifinals, people will be looking as much to find out why one team is the league's preeminent underachiever as opposed to why the other is a MLS Cup contender.
The Sounders made their mark in MLS three years ago when they spent their inaugural season playing in front of sold out crowds match in, match out and put together one of the best expansion years in MLS history. But despite a fabulously talented roster, three U.S. Open Cup titles and being one of the best teams in the league, the Sounders have yet to win a playoff tie.
RSL made their grand entrance to MLS in 2009, just like the Sounders. They were a five-year-old club by then, but they were an afterthought to that point, and that is being kind. The 2009 MLS Playoffs changed that. RSL ran through the postseason and then in the final, on the Sounders' home field, they outlasted the Galaxy in penalties to claim MLS Cup. The following fall, they were in the CONCACAF Champions League final and set for a long reign atop MLS, but they have not won a trophy or made it to a final since.
This is year four of the Sounders' and RSL's supposed reign and four years is a long time in MLS. It is 24% of the league's existence. It is four expansion teams later. It is enough time for a team to raise expectations to amazing height and then for its flaws to be exposed, exposed and exposed again.
The two teams have not taken the same routes to disappointment, though. Seattle has taken every opportunity to strengthen their squad, adding Mauro Rosales, Eddie Johnson, Adam Johansson and Christian Tiffert, while also upgrading at goalkeeper with Michael Gspurning after Kasey Keller's retirement. Salt Lake hasn't done much to alter their squad, with signing Alvaro Saborio to replace Yura Movsisyan their bigger move, instead relying upon the growth and familiarity of the team that prevailed in 2009 to stay on top of the league.
Their very different approaches landed them in the exact same place, though -- amazingly predictable.
Seattle, for all of their talent, is almost incapable of being proactive. Instead of dictating matches, they are reactive, allowing their opponents into matches the Sounders should dominate and putting themselves on the back foot so one goal, or even a second can ruin them.
Meanwhile, Salt Lake only has one way forward. Jason Kreis knows his first XI, runs them out there as often as possible and leans upon their familiar style of play at all costs. That's a style that puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of Alvaro Saborio, who has been known to drift out of matches, or asks Fabian Espindola to show a quality in front of net that he has only found by accident. Otherwise, RSL ends up in a waiting game with a defense led by Jamison Olave, who has not been able to stay fit.
These flaws saw both teams out of the playoffs just a year ago, when RSL pummeled the Sounders at home in the conference semifinals first leg before hanging on in the second leg away, only to lose in the Western Conference final when Olave broke down. One playoff, in two rounds, doomed Seattle in Salt Lake in the most predictable ways possible.
Now the two teams meet in the conference semifinals again, but this time inklings of doubt and emerging flaws are serious concerns. Will the Sounders ever show the aggressiveness and mental toughness to take the upperhand when the matches kick up a notch? Can RSL's tried and true style prove effective with a pair of ailing centerbacks, including Olave, again?
This time around, Seattle gets the first leg at home with the chance to get out to the fast start, take the play to Salt Lake and score a goal in the first leg of a playoff tie for the first time ever. But they still need to show their growth and a newfound ability to overcome adversity with Johnson battling an adductor strain. It's their fourth chance and if not now, the fifth and sixth chance look just as unlikely to come good as the first four.
Salt Lake may not have the luxury of more chances, though. If this team can't prove their flaws have been fixed, or at least capable of being overcome, RSL may tear the team apart and rebuild this winter. They have already gone out of the Champions League and MLS Cup-less postseason could be the confirmation that the core that brought the team its first trophy in 2009 and has been struggling to replicate that success is obsolete.
For both Seattle and Salt Lake it has been a long, roller-coaster over almost four years. They have been good enough to conjure up the excitement that surrounded them in 2009, but flawed enough to make their failures steal the spotlight. And for the team that bows out three matches short of MLS Cup, that spotlight may dim for good.