Finally, a goal. A Sounders goal. And finally, the franchise moves beyond the MLS’s first playoff round.
A late-season roster addition made the difference in extending the Sounders season. Mario Martinez, playing only because of injury to stalwart Mauro Rosales, whistled a left-footed bullet past nemesis goalie Nick Rimando for the breakthrough moment in the 81st minute of a do-or-die, 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake Thursday night in Sandy, UT.
For the first team in the team’s four Major League Soccer seasons, the Sounders won a playoff series. moving on to the Western Conference finals, another aggregate series, starting in Carson, CA., at 6 p.m. Sunday against the Los Angeles Galaxy. The second leg is at CenturyLink Field Nov. 18.
In a game whose possession was dominated by RSL, the Sounders finally mustered a charge when Brad Evans controlled the ball down the right flank and drew three defenders before releasing to his left to Fredy Montero. Montero’s window for a shot closed quickly, so he passed to his left, where Martinez came charging unmarked.
He swung his left leg hard across his body and sent the ball across the goal just beyond a diving Rimando, the series’ dominant player, and landed it in the side netting just inside the near post.
It was the only goal of the aggregate series, the first MLS goal for Martinez and, incredibly, the first Seattle goal against RSL in five 2012 games. The results line: 0-1, 0-0, 0-0, 0-0, 1-0.
On a chilly, blustery night with gusts to 25 mph in the Wasatch Valley, the Sounders were on the defensive most of the game, seeming to fear making a mistake that would cost them such a taut series.
But the defense remained steadfast, especially goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, whose nine saves were a season high. In the 68th minute, he came off his line to break up a Fabian Espindola breakaway, and in the 76th he dove to smother an Alvaro Saborio shot from outside the box. With RSL in a frenzy after the Seattle goal, Gspurning repelled a barrage of crosses and corner kicks, most notably rising and swatting a header by Alvoro Saborio over the crossbar in the 90th minute
“If you win these games when you’re not playing good, it’s a sign of a good team,” Gspurning, who was nearly the match of Rimando over the two games, said in a TV interview. “Lots of pressure was lost this day. We can play more relaxed — the must-have is done.”
After four successful regular seasons, especially at the turnstiles where they have led MLS each year, the franchise was feeling the pressure to deliver after three first-round playoff ousters. The 0-0 draw at CenturyLink Friday against RSL in the first leg ratcheted up the stakes Thursday night.
Pre-game, the good news of Eddie Johnson’s return to the starting lineup from a hip-muscle injury was dampened by the absence of Rosales (hamstring), the team’s assist leader. Coach Sigi Schmid elevated Martinez to the start, despite a relative lack of playing time.
Until Thursday, the only real impact by Martinez, 23, who joined the Sounders Aug. 1 on loan from Real Espana after leading Honduras into the quarterfinals of the Summer Olympics tournament, was a public complaint via his Twitter account about his lack of playing time, threatening to leave the team.
But Schmid gave him a talking-to, and Martinez backtracked. In arguably the most important game in club history, the decision to pick up Martinez and to insert him as the replacement for Rosales, the captain, paid off splendidly. He nearly scored in the 31st minute when he bent a free kick around the wall and hit the crossbar.
“Mario we thought was a player, in terms of fitness, who had close to 90 minutes in him because of the 90 minutes he played with Honduras,” Schmid said. “We also knew that his passing could help us. We felt that his ability in set pieces could help us as well. Obviously he delivered for us.”
The goal was was the first surrendered by RSL in 514 minutes of play going back to Oct. 6 against the Galaxy. But RSL, which eliminated the Sounders from the playoffs a year ago with a 3-2 aggregate score, also spent the final 422 minutes of the season without a goal as Gspurning and the defense repeatedly denied the No. 2-seeded Utahns.
Tickets for the second leg are on sale through SoundersFC.com or by calling 800 745-3000.