At the risk of melodrama, Ivanschitz's participation -- or non-participation -- could be the single most decisive factor of the first leg of the MLS Western Conference finals.

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Sounders midfielder Andreas Ivanschitz continues to make strides in his recovery from a knee strain suffered last month again Houston, and he was standout performer of Friday morning’s practice session at Starfire Sports.

“Much better,” Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer said. “He looked really good today – moving normal. I think that last bit will be for him to just strike balls within the inside of his right. That’ll be the last movement he gets over. But he’s looking really good, really sharp today.”

At the risk of melodrama, Ivanschitz’s participation — or non-participation — could be the single most decisive factor of the first leg of the Western Conference final series between the Sounders and Colorado Rapids on Nov. 22 at CenturyLink Field.

The Rapids pack numbers behind the ball and dare teams to break down their defensive shell. Colorado, the lowest scoring MLS playoff qualifier, rode its defense to a second-place finish in the West and a Supporters’ Shield challenge that lasted all the way until the final weekend of the season.

Beating the Rapids requires the cunning of midfield playmakers, and with Clint Dempsey out for the year, Alvaro Fernandez also dealing with injury and Ivanschitz on the mend, the Sounders are currently desperately low on creative types. If Ivanschitz can’t go, it’ll be that much easier for Colorado to target Nicolas Lodeiro and limit his influence.

“It’s his creativity on the field, number one,” Schmetzer said of Ivanschitz. “Number two, then you have two guys taking set pieces, him and Nico (Lodeiro). That gives us more options. It would be a massive help.”

– Speaking of set pieces, there has been a notable uptick in the threat of Seattle’s corner and free kicks over the final few months of the season. Schmetzer credited the midseason acquistion of Lodeiro from Boca Juniors, among other factors.

“I think it was a combination of things,” Schmetzer said. “When Andreas and Nico are on, I had them switch in various situations. You had Chad (Marshall) and Roman (Torres) come on. Nelson (Valdez) adds a third dimension for the forwards. I couldn’t pinpoint it, but over the last three months I think we’ve dialed that in well.”

– Multiple former Sounders played a role in Colorado’s conference semifinal win over Los Angeles, with both Marco Pappa and Sebastian Le Toux scoring in the penalty shootout. The Rapids also feature Marc Burch, who played for Seattle from 2012-2013, and Micheal Azira, who has developed into one of the top defensive midfielders in the league during his first year in Commerce City.

“I am so happy about Mike Azira,” Schmetzer said. “He’s done really well. He’s such a great guy. Marc Burch had good years here with us. He’s a seasoned pro. Marco, you know what he’s like, he’s technical and can come on and change games. Three good success stories, for me. But a special shout out to Mike, because I’ve really good a lot of time for that kid. He’s a really nice man and a good soccer player.

“I think he and (Sam) Cronin kind of settled that group and did a good job protecting that back line. You talk about Colorado’s defense – I think Cronin and Mike did a really good job.”

– With a week-and-half still to go before the Leg 1 of the series, Seattle is off for the next three days. Schmetzer, at least, will be watching plenty of soccer, first and foremost the rivalry match between the United States and Mexico this evening in Columbus, Ohio.

“We’ll watch the U.S. tonight,” Schmetzer said. “That’s a big game. Hopefully the U.S. will have a victory. Joevin Jones is playing for Trinidad here in a little bit, so we’ll be supportive of our teammates and our country. And take a little mental break, but stay active. Every now and again, you need a little bit of a mental break.”