Begrudging Respect: Seattle Sounders vs. Real Salt Lake Matchday

Tonight in Sodo the Seattle Sounders will clash with Real Salt Lake in a megawatt, no-holds-barred, keep-the-lights-on, another-sports-cliché match that may decide Western Conference supremacy (or at least keep L.A. at bay). And I’m honored to be taking my uncle, Bob. He is a gourmand and world traveller who prefers classy wines to grassy knees. Other than golf, he is emphatically not a sports fan. But the Sounders fever my wife and I exhibit, and the city he lives in, compelled him to check out a game. Tonight he’s in for a real treat.

Real Salt Lake is one of those clubs you can’t really hate. At least I can’t. The Claret and Cobalt do it the right way and they are committed. Sure, they have a stupid, piped-in fight song, but their fans care. I’ve been to Rio Tinto. It’s in the suburb of Sandy, but that doesn’t stop the RSL faithful from packing the place and singing along.

RSL is a classy group. They don’t employ a Blas Pérez or a Will Johnson (anymore), just quality players you can’t help but respect: Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, Ned Grabavoy and, of course, Nick Rimando. RSL is committed to developing players and keeping a core intact, which results in a culture of consistent excellence. And they do it in a small-market without being flashy like us, New York, Toronto or Los Angeles. That deserves begrudging respect.

If you only follow international competition or European clubs, you probably care less for the mighty mite shot stopper, Nick Rimando. However, Rimando is approaching folk-hero status among MLS-heads. He has been brilliant for so long that his feats are almost of heroic proportion. I remember the 2012 Western Conference semifinals where Rimando stopped damned near everything put at him. The first leg up here in Seattle went scoreless and the game in Sandy was as well until the 81st minute. It was a lone, late and deadly shot from Mario Martinez that decided the series in Seattle’s favor. During the home game, a cold night in early November, I screamed many unpleasant things at every save Rimando made. He was simply lights out, laying out for corners, punching headers and cutting angles all night. Late in the game, he collided with a streaking Christian Tiffert and took an elbow to the temple. I howled with the barbaric green-and-blue faithful for the coward to get up and get on with it. I had my blood up and wasn’t feeling none to classy. Rimando finished with game with a black and swelling eye, and I felt mighty sheepish about my behavior later. Nick Rimando is nothing but class.

The problem here is: Seattle too often must go through RSL to achieve their goals and succeed in MLS. This rivalry, though not culturally or geographically natural, is predicated on competition. The teams have gone toe-to-toe in huge games too often to count. Plus RSL has what Seattle wants: an MLS Cup. RSL has been in multiple championship games while Seattle wallows in the lobby of the contender’s club, eyeing L.A., Salt Lake and Kansas City jealously.

This Friday with a rested Dempsey, the Sounders can change their stars. We called our 4-2 victory over Portland a statement game. Scratch that. Portland is playing for their playoffs lives and their defense is as loose as blueliner’s tooth. This is Seattle’s statement game.

Bold Prediction: We’re rested. So are they. We have top-flight talent. So do they. The big difference in the match will be Álvaro Saborio who recently returned from injury. All he does is put balls in the back of the net. Not trying to sell the Sounders short, but I see a tie: 1-1.

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