SEATTLE — The best season for the Seattle Sounders ended exactly the same way as the last one, with an early playoff exit.
"It's definitely a very empty, hollow feeling in our stomachs at this stage," Seattle coach Sigi Schmid said.
The Sounders' third season ended on Wednesday night when they couldn't overcome a three-goal deficit and fell 3-2 on aggregate scoring to Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference semifinals. Seattle dug a 3-0 hole with an awful effort in the first game of the two-leg match, then could only manage a pair of second-half goals Wednesday despite a furious onslaught against the RSL defense.
The loss took away from a season where Seattle won a third straight U.S. Open Cup title, advanced to the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League for the first time, claimed the Cascadia Cup in its rivalry with Portland and Vancouver and finished the MLS season with a franchise-best 63 points.
But now comes an offseason filled with a handful of questions for a roster that's among the most talented in the league. The biggest looming issue is who will replace Kasey Keller.
Wednesday's loss marked the end of Keller's career. Keller, who had previously announced his intent to retire after this season, was arguably the most influential American goalkeeper ever with his success playing in three different European leagues before returning home to get the Sounders off the ground.
He has been one of the top goalkeepers in Major League Soccer, as evidenced by a late save on a breakaway Wednesday night that gave Seattle hope of an equalizing goal.
He leaves a huge void.
"He's still a goalkeeper who's one of the best goalkeepers, if not the best goalkeeper in our league. He's played at a high level," Schmid said. "It's great to see somebody be able to finish their career at home in front of friends and family. It's been a great situation. We're going to miss him, for sure. But I'm sure he'll be around."
Seattle's biggest revelation this season turned out to be Argentine midfielder Mauro Rosales, who missed the playoffs with a knee injury aggravated in the regular season finale. Rosales was under contract for just this season, but indicated after Wednesday's loss that a long-term deal keeping him in Seattle could be finalized soon.
Getting Rosales healthy for next season, along with the return of Steve Zakuani and O'Brian White, could make the highest-scoring team in the MLS even more potent. Zakuani was considered Seattle's best player before the season began but he didn't play following a broken leg suffered early in the season against Colorado.
"I think the more quality players you have the better it is and you just have more options," Schmid said. "Eventually they compete against each other and the strong survive and become better and your team becomes better overall."
Seattle will likely return to training earlier than in the past because of its advancement in the CONCACAF Champions League. The Sounders will play in the two-leg quarterfinals in early March, with their opponent drawn next week. As a group runner-up in the qualifying stage, Seattle will face either the Los Angeles Galaxy or Mexican clubs Santos Laguna or Pumas-UNAM in the quarterfinal.
Seattle was hoping to enter that tournament with an MLS Cup title in hand.
"It's going to be good for us for the next season," forward Fredy Montero said. "We are more mature. We know how to play playoffs right, now, and we are really sad because it was too late, but we need to focus for the next season."
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