Seattle Sounders FC, which has three U.S. Open Cup titles in its trophy cabinet, will begin its quest for a first MLS Cup title on Friday when it welcomes Real Salt Lake to CenturyLink Field.
Since joining Major League Soccer in 2009, Seattle has developed a reputation for aesthetically pleasing attacking football.
But the 2012 edition of the Emerald City club can be more aptly characterized by defensive stability. The Sounders enter the playoffs having conceded just 33 goals in the regular season, second-fewest in the league.
"It's been great," Sounders defender Jeff Parke told MLSsoccer.com in assessing the team's performance this year. "Maybe we didn't get as many points as we did last year, but the group has been harder to break down and we've made it harder for teams to play against us. It's a more mature and diverse group."
At the heart of the defensive surge has been goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, who was acquired at the beginning of the season. The Austrian became the first player from outside the CONCACAF region to lead the league in goals against average as his mark of 0.73 goals against is the third-lowest in league history.
"He puts himself in good spots and when he needs to make big saves he does," Sounders defender Marc Burch said. "He's done a great job. The goals he's let in haven't been his fault. He's a great goalie, he communicates well, organizes in the back and everybody fights for him as well as he fights for us. He knows we make the plays we can in front of him and when we don't, he makes plays for us."
Real Salt Lake makes the venture to Seattle on the back of a scoreless regular season finale against Vancouver Whitecaps FC, the third successive 0-0 draw for Salt Lake across all competitions.
"I am going to take the 'glass half-full' approach, for sure," head coach Jason Kreis said of his team's failure to score in three games. "Because for me, just a little thing here or there is better, and if we don't have three ties in our last matches, we have three wins.
"Literally, I think that is just six inches this way or that way with some of the passes, or the final touches, or somebody just calms down to make a little bit better decision when on the attacking third, then were talking about all these wins we stacked up. But I also think that it can be a positive thing to have a little disappointment in our minds heading into the playoffs to give us a little bit of an extra edge."
Real Salt Lake and Seattle met in the first round of last year's playoffs with the Claret and Cobalt picking up a 3-0 win over the Sounders at Rio Tinto Stadium.
The scheduling of this season's home-and-away affair is reversed, and midfielder Will Johnson believes that Seattle will provide a tough tie over both legs.
"I'm not sure there is a perfect scenario," he told MLSsoccer.com. "These games change so much, a goal here or there changes every game. Just as long as we stay together, execute our tactics, that will be the perfect game."