Chris Coulter
Montero plays tonight; Alonso sits out again.
When Sounders FC won 2-0 at FC Dallas on May 9, Fredy Montero scoring twice in


Winless in Past Eight, Sounders Look to Hand Real Salt Lake its Fourth Straight Loss

Chris Coulter
Montero plays tonight; Alonso sits out again.
When Sounders FC won 2-0 at FC Dallas on May 9, Fredy Montero scoring twice in a three-minute span of the second half, neither the team nor its supporters could have imagined it would be the last victory for two months.

But that's the cold reality facing the Sounders tonight when they visit Western Conference nemesis Real Salt Lake (7 p.m., KING-TV), whose 1-0 win in Seattle three days after Montero's brace sent the Sounders on their current 0-4-4 slide, the longest winless streak in franchise history.

Seattle was just a few seconds from ending that downward spiral four days ago in Foxborough, Mass., but surrendered a last-gasp header by 17-year-old Diego Fagundez and had to settle for a bitter, frustrating 2-2 draw with New England--the Revolution's first goal, by Saër Sène, was clearly offside--squandering Eddie Johnson's two first-half goals that gave him a team-high seven for the season, one-third of the Sounders' total.

Real Salt Lake hasn't played any better lately, with consecutive one-goal home losses to Los Angeles and San Jose, followed by Saturday's 2-0 defeat at Columbus. It's the team's longest losing streak of the year and longest since dropping four straight in September and October of last year, part of a six-match winless streak to conclude the season that preceded their dispatching of Seattle in the playoffs.

The Sounders don't have fond memories of Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, where they were drilled 3-0 by Real Salt Lake last October 29 in the first leg of their first-round playoff series, a loss Seattle could not overcome with a 2-0 home victory five days later. The Sounders' 2-1 win last May halted Real Salt Lake's 29-match home winning streak, and RSL has been beatable at home this year, going 6-4, including a stunning 3-1 U.S. Open Cup loss to the North American Soccer League's Minnesota Stars at the end of May.

Real Salt Lake matches up well with the Sounders, even with Seattle at full strength. That won't be the case tonight, with defensive midfielder Ozzie Alonso suspended for one match after picking up his fifth yellow card this year on Saturday, first-string keeper Michael Gspurning sidelined for the 11th straight match with a strained hip, and Andrew Weber, who had started between the pipes the past four matches, going down with a adductor strain against New England and being replaced by Bryan Meredith for the second half.

With Weber out for up to four weeks and Gspurning not ready to return, Meredith will start, backed up by Josh Ford, the third-string keeper most of last season who was activated this week after recovering from a stress fracture in his left knee that forced him to the disabled list for nearly two months. Jeff Parke left the June 24 loss at Portland with dizziness and didn't play in the U.S. Open Cup win over San Jose two days later or at New England, but he should return tonight, possibly joining Jhon Kennedy Hurtado in the center and returning the defense to full strength for the first time in months.

Losing Alonso--who misses his third match in the past six, all due to suspensions--hurts. He's the Sounders' most indispensable player, with qualities that no one else on the roster (and very few in all of MLS) possess, and his absences have had a negative impact on the team's defense and its ability to take the ball away and keep possession in the center of the field. Rookie Andy Rose, who started for Alonso and played the full 90 all three times, is aggressive to the point of putting his team at risk, and has been fortunate to avoid a red card after drawing yellows on three occasions.

Getting Montero back helps, although he wasn't missed at New England as Mauro Rosales moved up from the midfield and Johnson picked up the scoring slack, with his first goal coming on a pinpoint cross from Rosales. Without Montero, Seattle scored twice for the first time since May 19 at Vancouver, when Johnson and Montero had one apiece.

The Sounders actually played outplayed Real Salt Lake back on May 12, but a dominant first half did not translate to a goal, and Fabián Espíndola's strike early in the second half proved too much to overcome as the visitors' veteran defense imposed its will:

What has made Real Salt Lake so difficult to beat--current skid notwithstanding--is an experienced core unmatched in MLS. No less than eight starters have played together for the past five years, with four of them teammates for six. It all starts in the back four, where Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers in the center and Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran on the left and right, respectively, are the longest-tenured defensive unit in MLS.

Olave, a towering, glowering, physical presence at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, was the 2010 MLS Defender of the Year and was named to the MLS First XI the past two seasons. He can score as well, with 10 career goals. He played in Colombia for powerhouse Deportivo Cali, Montero's club before he arrived in Seattle, and kept his countryman under wraps in Real Salt Lake's victory two months ago. Beltran is RSL's ironman, playing every minute of all 18 league matches and contributing two assists.

Real Salt Lake's goalkeeping situation is the exact opposite of Seattle's: Nick Rimando, a 13-year MLS veteran who's spent the past six in Utah and backs up Tim Howard on the U.S. National Team, has started 16 of 18 matches, missing one with a shoulder injury and the other due to a national-team commitment. He ranks second all-time in MLS with 92 shutouts and third all-time with 121 wins and 304 games, all of them as a starter.

Don't let his drum-circle-worthy dreads fool you: Kyle Beckerman, with Real Salt Lake for the past six years of a 12-year MLS career, is one of the league's best midfielders, the team captain and an All-Star the past three years. He's scored four goals and set up three more this year, with 17 goals and 21 assists in his RSL tenure. Another national-team member (21 appearances since 2007), he's potentially blocking Alonso's place in the first XI if the new U.S. citizen gets the go-ahead to play for Jurgen Klinsmann's squad. He'll be well-rested, having sat out at Columbus, like Alonso due to yellow-card accumulation.

Also with six years in Utah, midfield maestro Javier Morales, who missed the match in Seattle with a strained quad, might be Real Salt Lake's best player. Rebounding from a horrifically dislocated ankle last year, the 32-year-old Argentine is returning to the form that made him a two-time All-Star, playing in 14 matches and starting eight, with two goals and four assists. After starting and going all the way in the past two contests for the first time since early May, he's probable for tonight with a hyperextended right knee.

Espíndola, another six-year veteran, beat Seattle in May and could do it again. The Argentine has six goals and three assists, 33 and 13 for his career. His partner up front, Costa Rican Álvaro Saborío, leads Real Salt Lake with seven goals, six at home, and has 33 in three seasons. He's scored four of them against Seattle, two in last year's playoff opener.

The most important factor for the Sounders as they enter the second half of the season is avoiding injuries. When this team is healthy, they've proven they can compete with anyone, but it's impossible to know how good they can be, because they haven't yet fielded their optimal lineup, one through 11, fielding 17 different starting lineups in as many league matches, 22 in 22 when you include Champions League and U.S. Open Cup play.

By contrast, Real Salt Lake has six players who have started 14 or more of their 18 matches--Saborío, Espíndola, Olave, Wingert, Beckerman, and Beltran, with 14, 15, 15, 16, 16, and 18, which sounds more like a series of fortunate rolls with a 20-sided die. The Sounders have two: Montero with 15 and Alonso with 14. No defender has more than 13.

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