SANDY — Goals had been elusive for Real Salt Lake over the past month, and that was no different in the club’s playoff ouster Thursday night.
In a Western Conference semifinal playoff series desperate for a goal, it was the visitor and not RSL that finally delivered.
Seattle midfielder Mario Martinez scored a wonder goal in the 81st minute, and the Sounders backed it up with another solid defensive effort to stun Real Salt Lake for a 1-0 Game 2 victory and a 1-0 aggregate series victory.
“If you play good soccer, you have to score the goals. The last five matches, we didn’t score the goals and that’s tough for us,” said RSL midfielder Javier Morales.
Real Salt Lake outshot Seattle 14-9, but Sounders keeper Michael Gspurning came up big — just as he did in Game 1 — with nine saves. It was Seattle’s fourth straight shutout against RSL this season and sends coach Jason Kreis’ team into the offseason without a goal in its last five matches.
The series victory is Seattle’s first in franchise history, and the Sounders advance to the Western Conference final to take on defending champion Los Angeles.
Thursday's decisive moment came late when it looked like overtime and potentially penalty kicks would be needed to determine a winner. A defensive mistake in midfield by Kenny Mansally allowed Seattle to attack with even numbers. After a couple quick passes in midfield, Fredy Montero chipped a ball over RSL’s defense to an unmarked Martinez, who rifled a half volley past Nick Rimando and just inside the far post.
Real Salt Lake threw everything it had forward over the final nine minutes of regulation plus six minutes of stoppage time, but it couldn’t overcome its own struggles in the final third.
“I don’t think we were anxious at all. I think everybody felt and believed we’d get a goal one way or the other. This team has scored a lot of goals over the years. It seems bizarre that all of a sudden we couldn’t find the back of the net,” said RSL midfielder Will Johnson. “A little piece of qualify from them and they’re moving on. In the playoffs it’s a game of inches, a lot more than the regular season.”
It was another disappointing elimination game at Rio Tinto Stadium for Real Salt Lake. It lost the 2008 Western Conference final at home, the 2010 conference semifinal at home, the 2011 Champions League final at home and now the 2012 conference semifinal at home.
Just as in all those other losses, Kreis couldn’t help but feel a bit unlucky afterward. He thought his team created enough opportunities to win, but the counter-attacking team prevailed again.
“I hope that if there’s 100 games played, I hope the team that’s willing to risk more, the team that’s willing to be more bold, the team that’s willing to set the tempo and wanting to set the tempo gets results. As we’ve seen in the past couple of days in our league that’s not happening,” said Kreis.
The four higher-seeded MLS teams who hosted Game 2s this week were all eliminated.
The wind played a big factor in Thursday’s match. The Sounders attacked with the wind throughout the first half and were definitely the more dangerous team, including a Martinez free kick that caromed off the crossbar in the 31st minute.
After surviving the wind and Seattle’s early opportunities, Kreis admitted feeling pretty good at halftime with the score knotted at 0-0.
Ironically enough, Seattle had the best chance again early in the second half on a superb strike from Brad Evans, but Game 1 hero Rimando was equal to the challenge with a spectacular diving save.
Fabian Espindola wasn’t fit enough to start the match because of the hamstring injury he suffered in Game 1, but he entered in the 58th minute for Paulo Jr. Despite his presence, the half chances continued.
“Sometimes we’re like a willow. We bend a little bit and we give away a little bit of possession, but at the end of the day it’s important not to give away the chances,” said Seattle coach Sigi Schmid.