With RSL set to play their win or go home playoff match against the Sounders in Seattle tonight, the Claret and Cobalt face a daunting task: win at Lumen Field. The Sounders have never lost a home playoff match under head coach Brian Schmetzer. Beyond that, the Sounders have been a Western Conference playoff juggernaut, making it to four of the last five MLS cups, winning two of them.
So does Pablo Mastroeni's squad even stand a chance? The answer is that the game might be a lot closer than is assumed given history.
One of the reasons why Seattle always does so well in the playoffs is because they enter the postseason in top form, with team chemistry and performance at its peak. This is usually the recipe for success in MLS. The team lifting the championship is often the team in best form at the end of the regular season as opposed to whoever had the best combined season.
For once, Seattle is not entering the postseason in great form. They went winless in their last six games, which included uncharacteristic performances such as a loss to Houston, a home loss to SKC, and a 3-0 dismantling by LAFC. RSL will be hoping that trend continues tonight.
As for RSL, their form is all over the place. They sputtered into Decision Day after home losses to San Jose and Portland, but rallied for a dramatic win over SKC to make the playoffs. Damir Kreilach's 95th minute game winner is the kind of moment that can jumpstart a team forward through any number of impressive performances.
So much of soccer is won through tactical battles between head coaches. This means that some matchups are more favorable than others between teams. Great managers make tactical adjustments to win games, and sometimes talent gaps are too big to overcome. But when those margins are not too large, which is the case with this game, team matchups play a big role in the outcome.
RSL has matched up well with the Sounders this year. The departure of head coach Freddy Juarez midseason means having a true understanding of the teams' games is more difficult, but not impossible. In their first game this June, RSL lost 2-1 in Seattle. The Claret and Cobalt held their own, with Seattle needing a fortunate bounce off of a defender's hand to earn the game-winning penalty. That match was played with Juarez's 4-3-3, but showed that RSL has the talent to hang with the Sounders.
The second and last regular season match between the teams this year was a 1-0 RSL victory in September. That game was under current interim manager Pablo Mastroeni, who prefers a 3-5-2. That formation largely quieted the potent Sounders attack, as they registered just two shots on goal. A similar tactic from RSL tonight will be expected, which should leave Mastroeni's squad optimistic that the tactical battle will be in their favor.
In the playoffs, teams often count on big players to step up and be match winners. Kreilach did this on Decision Day, and he has shown to be a killer in the postseason (just ask LAFC). Kreliach's 16 goals this season proves he can be relied on to deliver consistently for RSL, and his clutch gene means there is a high probability he finds the back of the net at Lumen Field. Combine that with Albert Rusnak's double-double season of 11 goals and 11 assists and RSL is one or two moments of individual brilliance away from walking out of Seattle with a historic playoff victory.