SANDY, Utah Playing in big games is nothing new to the Seattle Sounders. From U.S. Open Cup finals to CONCACAF Champions League matches, this is a team familiar with competing on a big stage. None of that big-game experience showed through against Real Salt Lake Saturday night.
From the opening whistle, Salt Lake dominated the Sounders offensively and defensively to notch a 3-0 victory at Rio Tinto Stadium in the opening leg of the Western Conference semifinal series between the teams. RSL did not allow a single shot on goal through 90 minutes. Seattle, on the other hand, conceded 12 shots on goal and 19 shots total.
It left Sounders coach Sigi Schmid feeling like everything that could go wrong for his team went wrong in epic fashion. Saturday was the fifth time in three years the Sounders failed to score in an MLS playoff match, much less win.
They were more physical than us, Schmid said. They knocked us off the ball early on. We didn’t react well to it. They crushed people on tackles. We pushed people on tackles. We didn’t crush them. They were much better than we were in all facets of the game.”
The offensive carnage inflicted by RSL started with Alvaro Saborio. Seattle could not figure out how to contain the speedy Costa Rican forward.
Saborio opened the scoring in the 42nd minute. With goalkeeper Kasey Keller out of position, Saborio latched onto a cross delivered by Chris Wingert from the left flank and tapped the ball across the line.
He came up big once again in the 53rd minute. Saborio took a pass from Javier Morales after a throw-in, flicked the ball around Seattle defender Jeff Parke using his back heel and buried it in the net with ease.
Ned Grabavoy drove the final nail in the coffin for Salt Lake in the 89th minute when he tracked down a poorly cleared ball, shook off a defender and slotted the ball inside the right post.
Other than Keller, Schmid could not single out anything redeeming about the way his team played from start to finish.
Keller was the one guy who stood up and performed, Schmid said. He made a few key saves. We never forced Rimando to make a save all night.
Seattle did fall victim to facing a fully healthy RSL team at an inopportune time. This was the first time Salt Lakes strongest 11 players played together in the first 11 since early in the season. Their ability to dominate quickly returned to the surface after lying dormant during the last couple of months of regular season play.
The odds do not appear to be in Seattles favor for turning things around during the second leg on Wednesday night. RSL holds a commanding three-goal advantage in the aggregate. One hope for the Sounders is that Salt Lake could be missing its two center backs after both Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave exited the match with injuries.
If Olave cannot return from a quad strain and Borchers cannot rebound from a knee strain, it could make the RSL defense vulnerable.
Salt Lake is taking nothing for granted going into CenturyLink Field.
“There’s another match at Seattle, RSL coach Jason Kreis said. We know how difficult it is to play there. We’re going to need 90 more minutes of very committed soccer to make sure we play through this round.”
The same came be said for the Sounders. Another effort resembling the one produced at Rio Tinto Stadium will certainly doom Seattle to another early MLS playoff exit.
Schmid knows the offense needs to get back on track for his team to have a chance. It is possible for the Sounders to make up ground after leading MLS teams with 56 goals during regular season play. But the hole they need to dig out of will test all their skills and experience to the fullest.
Everything that could go wrong did go wrong tonight, Schmid said. We got to make sure it doesn’t happen the next game.”
A return of Mauro Rosales to the lineup from an MCL sprain could be a difference maker. Rosales is third in the league with 13 assists. Fredy Montero is the biggest beneficiary of those playmaking skills, with many of his 12 goals this season set up by Rosales in one form or another.