Despite the most intense local sports assault since Stanford’s football team ran over the Washington Huskies, the Sounders Wednesday lost a series after winning a match, while regaining a little dignity.
“It’s an empty feeling in our stomachs,” said a red-eyed Sigi Schmid, Sounders coach. “Last year after we lost, some said the playoffs were too big for us. Tonight we finally figured out how to win a playoff game.
“But we figured it out one game too late.”
The Sounders were as intense Wednesday as they were flaccid Saturday, when Real Salt Lake dominated them 3-0. This time outshooting RSL by an astounding 26-4, including 9-1 on goal — they had no shots Saturday — the Sounders won the Western Conference semifinal playoff match 2-0 but lost the home-and-home series on aggregate goals, 2-3.
The aggregate-goal format in this round is an aggravation to many, but the Sounders knew the rules when they played their worst game of the year Saturday.
“If we played with 60 percent of this intensity in the first game, we’d have been good,” Schmid said. “We know we should be going on.”
Instead, moving on to face the winner between the Los Angeles Galaxy and New York Red Bulls in the Western finals Sunday will be RSL — barely.
After a scoreless, nearly violent first half that cost the Sounders two starters (Alvaro Fernandez and Brad Evans) to injury, matters looked grim for the 36,021 at the Clink (although a few thousand empty seats suggested the long odds and drippy weather were too much for some). The Sounders needed to win by four goals, three to force an overtime. Now they had to do all that scoring in a half.
They did most of it quickly. In the 56th minute, Osvaldo Alonso scored on a penalty kick after RSL defender Tony Beltran was yellow-carded for pulling down Fredy Montero in the area. Five minutes later, Lamar Neagle, a reserve who came into the game in the 14th minute replacing Fernandez, took a soft feed from Montero and slid and even more delicate shot under the hands of RSL goalie Nick Rimando.
Despite RSL seeming to have the entire Mormon Tabernacle Choir in front of the goal, the defense was swiftly breached twice, and the best home-field advantage in the MSL suddenly rejoined the fray.
The attack grew frenzied; as Schmid put it, “you could feel (RSL) teetering.” But through the next 30 minutes of drama, they did not topple. Numerous Seattle opportunities went wide, high or off defenders, who were the most difficult Utah team to score against since 7-foot-4 center Mark Eaton played for the Jazz. RSL was the better team.
After five minutes of stoppage time, a superb (18-10-9 in MLS play) season had come to naught in the first round for the third consecutive year in the first round. It brought to an unceremonious end the 22-year professional career of goalie Kasey Keller.
Keller had been furious with his teammates for Saturday’s effort, especially including a final goal in Saturday’s 88th minute that proved the difference. Wednesday night, he was merely disconsolate.
“That third goal (Saturday) was a monster,” he said, smiling a little and shaking his head. “But tonight I give the guys credit — they made it entertaining for everyone here and on national TV.”
Keller made it entertaining for soccer fans in his three years with the MLS version of the Sounders. His stellar international resume, fiery demeanor and local roots made him the franchise’s most popular and influential figure.
“It’s been a hell of a three years — an honor to come home and play for something as cool as the Sounders have become, and were from the first minute,” he said. “You couldn’t ask for a better end of my career.
“Of course, holding an MLS Cup in a couple of weeks would have been tremendous, but you can’t fault anybody. We had one of those bad days a couple of days ago and came back here and restored a ton of pride.”
Acknowledging again that his retirement at 42 won’t sink in until preseason training begins, he seemed ready to begin a new, off-field phase of his soccer life.
“I’d be real surprised if I wasn’t floating around here somewhere, doing something,” he said referring to a possible front-office position with the Sounders. “But it’s a weird, weird feeling that it’s the last time for me as a player.”
Keller long ago said this season would be his last, and that signal seemed to give the Sounders some momentum in the season and heading into the playoffs.
“There’s nothing I would have rather done, or this team would rather have done, than to take him out with an MLS Cup,” Schmid said. “It’s great to see somebody being able to finish his career at home in front of friends and family.”
The rest of the Sounders also finished in front of friends and family, but the finish is destined to haunt them for another year.