Out for the past month, Fernandez is poised to return against RSL.
When Real Salt Lake was last here six months ago, it was the


Streaking Sounders, Real Salt Lake Clash for Western Conference Supremacy

Out for the past month, Fernandez is poised to return against RSL.
When Real Salt Lake was last here six months ago, it was the least satisfying victory Sounders FC fans will ever half-heartedly celebrate, the second leg of a first-round playoff series that ended the way the previous two had--without satisfaction, as a team that had achieved regular-season success saw it all fall apart once again and crashed out of the postseason.

The Sounders' 2-0 victory last November 2 in a match they dominated, outshooting the visitors 26-4, was not enough to overcome Real Salt Lake's 3-0 triumph four days earlier in Utah. Seattle played its worst match of the year, failing to muster a single shot on goal.

Tomorrow night at CenturyLink Field (7 p.m., KING-TV), Real Salt Lake returns, again possessing something the Sounders want--first place in the Western Conference.

Seattle enters the match as Major League Soccer's hottest team, on the best run of the franchise's four seasons, with a club-record winning streak that reached five Wednesday night in a 2-0 victory at FC Dallas, an unbeaten streak at six--the only loss on the final day of March--and three consecutive shutouts. The Sounders are 7-1-1, good for 22 points, one point behind Real Salt Lake, which has played three more matches.

The Sounders are doing it with defense, allowing a league-low three goals with a back four that offers seven legitimate options, and depth--Cordell Cato, a 19-year-old rookie from Trinidad, became the 23rd player this season to take the pitch in Rave Green on Wednesday and paid immediate dividends, entering as a substitute midway through the second half and setting up the first of Fredy Montero's goals two minutes later.

That goal was special enough, as Montero faked out two Dallas defenders and lashed a shot just inside the near post that beat keeper Kevin Hartman. The second, three minutes later, with the assist going to another rookie, Alex Caskey, demonstrated what sets Montero apart among the league's elite goal-scorers. He simply would not be denied, tracking a low cross from Caskey that deflected off Dallas defender George John and bounced across the goalmouth, diving forward as it came off the grass and spearing it with his head into the back of the net. Hartman, one of the league's top keepers, had no chance:

After not scoring in the season's first six matches, Montero has three goals and an assist in the past three, and keeping him contained will be the visitors' top priority tomorrow.

Real Salt Lake enters the match on a run of their own, going undefeated in their past four (2-0-2), including a scoreless draw Wednesday night at Chicago, where the Sounders won 2-1 two weeks ago. They've played well on the road, with two wins and two draws in six contests, and the Sounders' home has a special place in their hearts--they won their only MLS Cup here in Seattle's inaugural season of 2009, beating the Los Angeles Galaxy 5-4 on penalty kicks after playing to a 1-1 draw in regulation and extra time.

More than half of Real Salt Lake's 18 goals have come from a trio of players--Costa Rican forward Alvaro Saborio, who leads the team with four, and Argentinian forward Fabian Espindola and midfielder/captain Kyle Beckerman, with three apiece. Saborio has been particularly effective against Seattle, scoring four times in his past six starts. Espindola's countryman Javier Morales, a catalyst in midfield with a team-high three assists, didn't travel with the team after departing with a strained right quad midway through the first half at Chicago, a recurrence of an injury he suffered in the preseason. Eighteen-year-old Luis Gil will start in his stead. Midfielder Will Johnson should return on the left after sitting out at Chicago due to a red card in the previous match, and starting keeper Nick Rimando, who also sat out on Wednesday with a shoulder strain, likely will return as well.

Real Salt Lake's defensive core has played together for five seasons, the longest stretch of any back four in the league. In the center, Colombian Jamison Olave, voted the league's Defender of the Year two seasons ago, is big (6-3, 210) and physical, as is Nat Borchers. On the outside, Chris Wingert on the left and Tony Beltran on the right are small but mobile, and like to race up the wings and join the attack.

The Sounders are playing their fifth contest in 15 days, but a number of their key players should be well-rested. Osvaldo Alonso, a ball-winning demon in central midfield, did not play on Wednesday, resting for the first time this year, but is listed as questionable due to a strained groin he suffered vs. Philadelphia last week. Left back Leo Gonzalez will return after sitting out a one-game suspension, and midfielder Mauro Rosales--who missed last year's playoff series with a torn MCL in his right knee--played just the first half against Dallas.

Montero played only the second half, and forward David Estrada came off midway through the second. Midfielder Alvaro Fernandez, who has missed the past five matches with a strained quad, is fit and ready to return to his customary place on the left. One defender who won't be available is right back Zach Scott, who was fined and suspended one match by MLS today for a dangerous challenge on Dallas' Fabian Castillo. Adam Johansson will get his fourth start of the season on the right. Center back Patrick Ianni is unlikely to play due to the lower-back pain that has dogged him for the past few weeks.

Bryan Meredith, starting in goal for the injured Michael Gspurning for the second straight match, took a huge step forward in recording his second shutout, with four of his five saves in the first half. The 22-year-old was tested for the first time in his three appearances and came up big, especially on his 38th-minute denial of Scott Sealy's point-blank header bound for the upper corner. Meredith extended fully and slapped the shot off the post, then pounced on the rebound before Sealy could get a foot to it. It was an effort that would have done Kasey Keller proud, and it's an early front-runner for MLS Save of the Week.

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