That is the prize hanging in front of Sounders FC ahead of Friday’s massive home game against Western Conference leader Real Salt Lake.
It’s a fitting matchup for Seattle to potentially come full circle, as a 2-1 road loss at Rio Tinto Stadium capped a rock-bottom start at 0-3-2 in March, but the Sounders are trying to avoid getting too carried away with hype.
“You can’t avoid the fact that it’s a big game,” said general manager Adrian Hanauer, “and it’s exciting that it’s a big game, but that’s it. It’s a big game and we want to get three points out of it, but we can’t build it into anything else.”
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RSL has an MLS-high 48 points with a 14-8-8 record. Seattle, at 14-8-6, has two fewer points, albeit in two fewer games.
There is a prize that comes with first place in the regular season, the Supporters’ Shield. But the trophy, which comes with qualification to the CONCACAF Champions League, has lost a little prestige since the league went to an unbalanced schedule.
More important, perhaps, is the chance to get home-field advantage in the playoffs and, if things go well, host MLS Cup on Dec. 7.
Asked how much the team is thinking about first place, veteran defender Zach Scott said, “at this point, not much at all.”
“It’s September,” he added. “We’re playing all the way to December — that’s our goal. If we’re first at this point or if we’re in a playoff spot at this point, that’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking to go into the latter part of the season just playing well. I think that’s most important.”
RSL has swept the Sounders in two home games this season, dominating both the first meeting March 30 and then again June 22 by a 2-0 score. Shots are a better indicator of how the series has gone: Salt Lake has taken 42 over the two games to Seattle’s 10.
Coach Sigi Schmid said the team won’t consider possible revenge as “a finish line.”
“We have a lot of games to go,” he said. “We have to look at it as a continuation of what we’re doing, continuing to get better as a team.”
U.S. stars return this week
Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson aren’t expected to rejoin Sounders practice until Thursday. The duo started for the U.S. national team in Tuesday’s 2-0 win against Mexico in World Cup qualifying, with Johnson scoring the winner in the 49th minute, his fourth in his last six international games.
Of the last 15 goals scored by the USMNT, 10 have come from current Sounders.
Schmid said exhaustive travel will play a big part in Dempsey’s and Johnson’s availability Friday. “They were with us in Columbus, and from Columbus to Miami, Miami to San Jose, Costa Rica, back to Columbus and now to here. So it’s not only the games, it’s also the wear and tear of the travel.”
• Hanauer confirmed an international friendly will be included in an 18-game season-ticket package in 2014. Hanauer indicated the opponent might not be one of the world’s elite like Manchester United or Barcelona.
• Reign FC acquired Canadian international Carmelina Moscato in a trade with the Boston Breakers on Tuesday. The 29-year-old defender came in exchange for midfielder Kaylyn Kyle, who scored three goals in 21 games for Seattle.