TUKWILA, Wash. — The best rivalries are typically built on a combination of geography, history and hate.
The one between the Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake, however, is a little different. It may or may not meet the classic definition of a rivalry — not yet — but it’s certainly a game these teams look forward to.
“It’s a team you put a check next to and remember when you’re going to play them,” Sounders center back Jeff Parke told MLSsoccer.com. “They realize we like to play and we’re good and quick. They are strong and physical and definitely a good team. They can definitely get after it.”
Adding just a little extra spice to Saturday’s encounter (10 pm ET; watch LIVE online) is the fact that a trip to the top of the MLS table will be on the line. RSL currently lead the early race with 23 points, but the Sounders are hot on their heels with 22 points and three matches in hand.
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That’s pretty much par for the course when these sides play, as the Sounders and RSL are two of just four teams that have made the MLS Cup Playoffs in each of the past three seasons. Their point totals over that time (the Sounders have 180, while RSL have 172) are the league's second and third highest, behind only the LA Galaxy’s 184.
“Any time you have two good teams playing each other and want to compete for top of the table, there’s always going to be a little bit of a rivalry there,” Sounders manager Sigi Schmid said. “Is Manchester United Arsenal’s biggest rival? No, but it’s a rivalry game.”
In the three seasons since the Sounders joined MLS, they have been remarkably evenly matched with RSL. The all-time record between the two clubs is 3-3-2, including postseason. They are also even with nine goals scored each.
The Sounders scored a big victory last season when they snapped RSL’s 29-match home unbeaten streak. But RSL more than paid that back when they eliminated the Sounders on a 3-2 aggregate score in the playoffs.
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That doesn’t even include the US Open Cup qualifier the Sounders won in 2009, when they beat RSL 4-1 to kickstart a title run that has reached three on the trot.
“I think the key is that both teams like to play soccer,” said RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey, who doesn’t quite think this is a rivalry game. “We’ve played some big games against each other already. It’s a class organization, it’s run the right way. We have respect for everyone in their front office, on their coaching staff and their players.”
The relatively attractive styles that both teams play doesn’t hurt the quality of the games, either. RSL lead all of MLS with 150 goals scored since 2009. The Sounders are second with 146. On a per game basis, they have basically identical 1.42 averages.
But as much as these two teams may think of each other, the high level of tension that always seems to surround their encounters does have the potential to boil over.
“I think it’s teetering,” Parke said when asked about the potential of bad blood between the two teams. “It’s getting close. It’s one bad tackle from getting there. It’s two passionate, good teams. When you have teams that are close, you’re bound to get some bad blood.”
Jeremiah Oshan covers the Seattle Sounders for MLSsoccer.com and SB Nation.