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Seattle Sounders FC relishing battle for first place with Real Salt Lake

By Liviu Bird

SEATTLE — The final whistle had barely blown on Seattle Sounders FC’s 2-1 win over the Chicago Fire on Saturday, and already, reporters were asking questions about the next game. On Friday, Real Salt Lake travels to Seattle, where the Sounders hope to take over first place in the race for the Supporters’ Shield.

“We’ve built up a little rivalry, and it’s fun to play against these guys because it’s a very good team, too, and of course, they want to take the Supporters’ Shield, [and] we want to take the Supporters’ Shield,” Seattle goalkeeper Michael Gspurning said. “But we take it as it is. Two months ago, nobody would even think that Seattle is in the race for the Supporters’ Shield.”

After a run of three winless games in July, Seattle was second from the bottom of the Western Conference, albeit having played four matches less than RSL, which was at the top of the heap in the league.

Starting with a 2-1 win over Chivas USA on July 29, Seattle has won seven of its last eight games, losing only to the Houston Dynamo on the road on Aug. 17. The Sounders have climbed six places in the West, sit two points under RSL and still have two games in hand.

“We’ve worked to be in the position that we are,” Mauro Rosales said. “Still, we cannot be in the same rhythm all year long, and every team has its own difficult part in the year.”

Salt Lake seems to be coming off its difficult stretch. The club is unbeaten in three matches after losing three of the previous five, winning just once in that time. RSL defeated Seattle twice this season, 2-1 on March 30 and 2-0 on June 22, both at Rio Tinto Stadium.

RSL has Seattle’s number in the regular season, with five wins, two losses and four ties. The Sounders haven’t defeated RSL in the regular season since May 28, 2011, but they have a 2-1-1 record in the playoffs, including a difficult 1-0 aggregate victory in 2012.

“We have to find a way to play against them,” Rosales said, noting Seattle’s recent troubles against RSL. “It’s a tough team to beat. They’re a good team, but also we’ve got the rhythm that we want. Facing them, I think we’re going to be in the best form.”

Seattle’s early 2013 woes against Salt Lake punctuated a time in which the Sounders could not seem to beat any of the teams with which they normally compete for playoff positioning. Aside from two losses in Utah, Seattle lost 4-0 to the Los Angeles Galaxy.

As the hottest team in the league with games in hand on all but the Montreal Impact, the Sounders have a different mindset now than the previous two matchups against Salt Lake. Designated Players Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey have integrated better with the team, and forward Eddie Johnson has scored in both of his last two games with the club.

“We’re definitely in a much different place,” head coach Sigi Schmid said, “just a much different place in terms of our cohesion as a team. … We just think the two times we’ve been there this year, we haven’t played up to our standards. It’s important that we play up to our standards, and then we’ll be OK.”

This time, the Sounders will have home-field advantage firmly on their side. By Wednesday, 52,000 tickets had been distributed for the match on Friday, and Seattle has a 7-0-2 record in games with attendances of 40,000 or larger. (That record jumps to a perfect 5-0 when more than 55,000 people are in the stands.)

Seattle’s current 12-game home unbeaten streak is the longest in club history, but Real Salt Lake is the best MLS team on the road, with a 5-6-3 record and a plus-2 goal difference, the only positive differential in the league.

All signs point to a compelling battle for first place in the league, and Schmid, for one, looks forward to it.

“These are the games that you want,” he said. “When I left college coaching and went to the pros, and I asked a wise, old soccer coach — not a guy with all the tactics and all the nuances, the new things, but just a wise, old soccer coach — and in his North Irish accent, he said to me, ‘Sigi, if you don’t accept the challenges that life brings with it, life’s not worth living.’ … The game on Friday is one of those challenges, and that’s what makes life worth living.”

NOTES:

• Johnson and Dempsey will be available for selection for the Sounders, off international duty with the United States, and teammates Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando have returned to Real Salt Lake.

• Costa Rica’s Alvaro Saborío left camp early with a calf strain, and he is listed as out on RSL’s official injury report. The Sounders’ Brad Evans, who did not report to U.S. camp due to a calf strain of his own, is listed as questionable.

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