SEATTLE — From the moment Javier Morales went down with a broken ankle in May, it became clear that this wasn't going to be an easy season for Real Salt Lake.
After more injuries, and then an unusually high number of international call-ups and suspension throughout, the adversity continued to pile on.
Wednesday's playoff finale in Seattle was no different, but Real Salt Lake showed the veteran quality it demonstrated most of the year to simply persevere. After giving up two goals in a span of five minutes in the second half, RSL battled the rest of the match and despite losing the second game 2-0 at CenturyLink Field, it prevailed in the Western Conference semifinal on aggregate 3-2.
"It certainly wasn't pretty, it wasn't ideal, but at the same time I don't think anybody cares at this point, on to the next one," said RSL defender Chris Wingert.
RSL must now wait until tonight's 9 o'clock kickoff between Los Angeles and New York to learn who its Western Conference final opponent will be. If the L.A. Galaxy win, the conference final would be played in Southern California on Sunday. If New York wins, RSL would host the Red Bulls on Monday night.
RSL was outshot 26-4 with a makeshift backline, but the Sounders were only able to break through twice.
"Our guys battled through and believed in each other, and kept at it, kept their nose down through very, very difficult play," said RSL coach Jason Kreis.
It was a very chippy first half all the way around, and Seattle definitely took the brunt of it. Midfielder Alvaro Fernandez was forced off in the 14th minute after injuring his left hamstring and replaced by Lamar Neagle.
Fellow midfield starter Brad Evans was also subbed out in the 21st minute with a right ankle injury after getting into collisions with Will Johnson twice within 10 minutes. The last came near the corner flag, and after rolling out of bounds in pain Evans never returned.
Without the calming presence of Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave at the back, Real Salt Lake never looked comfortable at the back. It dodged a bullet when Fredy Montero put a close-range shot wide in the seventh minute, and the onslaught was on most of the half.
Over the final 15 minutes, RSL was in full-blown survival mode. Tony Beltran was the hero of the half clearing away a goal-bound shot by Jeff Parke with a diving header in the 36th minute.
"It was just a split second reaction, I saw Nick come out a little bit, so naturally I wanted to get in the goal in case there was a rebounded shot coming in. I don't know who struck, it happened so fast. It was a split-second reaction," said Beltran.
Beltran, making his first start in seven weeks, ended up conceding a penalty kick early in the second half as he grabbed Seattle forward on the shoulder during a scrum in the box. The ref quickly pointed to the penalty spot, and Osvaldo Alonso hammered the penalty right up the middle to put Seattle in front 1-0 in the 56th minute.
Kreis did not agree with the penalty decision one bit.
"I thought it was a travesty, an absolute travesty. Our player got pulled down," said Kreis.
Kreis inserted Ned Grabavoy into the match for Andy Williams shortly after the goal to shore up RSL's possession, but it didn't make much of a difference.
"I really did expect us to be better with the ball than we were tonight. It felt like we were really hurried, we got in a lot of good spots early in the game to win the ball but we gave it right back, so we never were able to gain any ground or get out of our half," said Kreis.
Sloppy defending and a missed clearance by Wingert five minutes later led to another Seattle goal. Montero appeared to mishit his initial shot from the right edge of the penalty, but the ball rolled soft toward the far post, and an onrushing Neagle was there to hammer it in for the 2-0 lead.
After looking nothing like the regular season team that scored 57 goals during the first leg, the Sounders were clearly clicking on all cylinders in the second half. Seattle continued to mount the pressure after cutting the aggregate series lead to 3-2.
Kreis again tried to shore up the leaky midfield in the 76th minute when he inserted Yordany Alvarez into the lineup for Alvaro Saborio and shifted to a 4-5-1 formation.
It seemed to slow the Sounders just enough as they were unable to bury the series equalizer.
Real Salt Lake's only legitimate scoring opportunity of the entire game didn't come until the 79th minute on a quick counter-attack opportunity from Fabian Espindola. His powerful shot from 12 yards out was punched out for a corner kick by Seattle 'keeper Kasey Keller.
For RSL, with Wednesday's series victory it successfully advanced out of the conference semifinals in three of the past four years — Chivas in 2008, Columbus in 2009 and now Seattle.
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