As far as conference semifinal match-ups go, it's tough to top Real Salt Lake and the Seattle Sounders. That's not just limited to this season either. Historically, there hasn't been a match-up quite like this one so early in the playoffs. Salt Lake won MLS Cup just two years ago and just this spring was in the final of the CONCACAF Champions League. Seattle racked up the third-most points of any team in MLS since 1998 and were borderline unbeatable from August on. As far as quality vs. quality goes, this is a conference semifinals treat.
Not only is this a battle between two MLS heavyweights, but it features two of the league's more entertaining teams. The Sounders led the league in scoring this season with 56 goals despite battling through their fair share of injuries. Fredy Montero started the season banged up, Mauro Rosales missed a month with a knee injury and Steve Zakuani missed essentially the entire season after being taken out by a horror tackle. Even so, here they stand as one of the clear "top two" in MLS with the league's most dynamic attack.
Salt Lake were also missing players with Alvaro Saborio, Will Johnson and, most notably, Javier Morales missing extended periods of time due to injuries and/or international duty with the Gold Cup. That is in addition to the matches Chris Wingert and Jamison Olave missed at the back. It led to a second half lull from Real, but it was enough for them to finish third.
The last time Real had all of their top players together and on the pitch was when they were making history in becoming the first MLS side to make the Champions League final. Fortunately for them, those top players are all back together again as they head into the playoffs and we could see the free-flowing, well-rounded attack that they showed when they were last healthy.
While Salt Lake gets everyone back and ready to go, the Sounders are in some trouble with Zakuani still out injured (although they've gotten used to playing without him at this point) and Rosales questionable after going down with a knee injury in their season finale. The midfielder is currently listed as questionable, but if the MVP candidate cannot go, the Sounders will sorely miss his creativity, putting real pressure on Fredy Montero.
The most interesting battle will be in the center of the midfield, where the league's top two defensive midfielders will do battle. Kyle Beckerman has been known as one of the better central midfielders in the league for a while with his great positioning sense, ability to read the game, strong tackling and quick passing. On the other hand, Osvalso Alonso took his major step forward this season. He had earned a reputation as a good player in the last two years, but this season he stepped all the way forward to MVP candidate, bossing the midfield for the Sounders with the most tackles in MLS by a large margin and quick passing to ignite the Sounders' attack. If either of the two can win the battle in the center, watch out.
Meanwhile, both teams will be hoping to make up for last year's playoff disappointments. For Salt Lake, it was a first round ouster at the hands of Dallas despite being the defending champions and going unbeaten in their final 14 matches to close the season. For Seattle, their first round elimination was the second in as many years, leaving them without a playoff series win in their short history. While nothing to be ashamed of in just two years, the Sounders will certainly start to feel a cloud hanging over their heads if they fall in the first round for a third consecutive season.