As great as the Western Conference semifinal matchup between the Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake may look at paper, there are some rather large caveats regarding health going into Friday's first leg. The biggest question mark surrounds Sounders forward Eddie Johnson, who has been all but ruled out of the game by coach Sigi Schmid. But there's an almost equally big question around RSL center back Jamison Olave, as he continues to nurse a hamstring strain.
Both injuries could amply affect how the teams approach this game, and it's not entirely clear who would be the bigger absence.
Johnson, as has been well documented at this point, is enjoying a renaissance season. He leads the Sounders with 14 goals, the second most he's ever scored in a season. With him, the Sounders offense is capable of running at a level few others can match.
After a bit of a rough start, he and Fredy Montero have learned to work together in a way that has maximized both of their talents. While they were once often fighting for the same space, they now interchange and make ones off of one another.
If Johnson is unable to go, that leaves the Sounders with several options. The two most obvious choices are Sammy Ochoa and David Estrada, both of whom spelled Johnson at various points this season. Estrada offers a near tireless work rate, harassing opponents in their own third and occupying defenders with his speed. Ochoa is more of a classic hold-up man, using his body to shield defenders and allowing Montero to make runs off of him. Both have shown an ability to score, but neither have anything like the game-breaking ability that Johnson shows.
Perhaps working in Estrada's favor is the ugly memory of Ochoa being totally manhandled during the first leg of last year's playoffs.
The other options are more untested. Schmid suggested that Steve Zakuani or Mauro Rosales could line up as a forward, but neither have played alongside Montero this season. If Schmid really wanted to get crazy, he might employ a three-forward formation that could potentially bring Mario Martinez into the mix.
For RSL, the health of Olave could have a similarly significant impact. Olave has been limited to just three MLS appearances over the last three months.
Although no player on RSL can match Olave's combination of size and speed, Kwame Watson-Siriboe, Chris Schuler and Chris Wingert have all spent time at center back and have all looked reasonably well playing there.
Watson-Siriboe comes closest to mimicking Olave, albeit to a lesser degree in both areas. Schuler has also shown flashes, but considering he too is nursing an injury, might not be such a good option.
What we could be left with is a pair of backups going at one another in the Sounders' offensive end. It's not as glamorous as we'd probably all prefer, but it would be interesting for its own reasons.