By JASON MITCHELL
SEATTLE, WA – The Seattle Sounders pressed hard for more than 90 minutes Wednesday night, but injuries, a gritty effort from a Real Salt Lake side that was also shorthanded, and a 3-0 aggregate hole proved too much to overcome.
Real Salt Lake watched that three-goal cushion fade quickly to one-goal cushion, but RSL fought off a furious late-game charge by the Sounders, who dominated possession and created countless chances, but never could find a third goal and instead settled for a 2-0 second-leg victory that meant an RSL series victory.
The series win sends Real Salt Lake to the Western Conference Final, where they will face either the Los Angeles Galaxy on Sunday at Home Depot Center or the New York Red Bulls at Rio Tinto Stadium on Monday.
"Four days ago we're just completely dominant and tonight we're back on our heels and being dominated," Kreis said. "In the span of four days, sometimes that can be difficult to figure out but our guys battled through and believed in each other and kept at it and kept their nose down through some very, very difficult play, difficult decisions by the referee and a difficult atmosphere.
"But we move on and we'll look for a better performance in the next round."
RSL played without starting centerbacks Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers, who were both injured, but it looked as though the visitors would be able to stop the Sounders vaunted attack. Especially when Sounders starters Alvaro Fernandez and Brad Evans were forced to leave the match in the first half with injuries.
Seattle eventually got going though, Neagle all but guaranteed a dramatic finish when he slid a shot past RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando in the 61st minute for Seattle’s second goal. Fredy Montero recorded the assist, deftly finding Neagle alone by the far post to send the capacity crowd at CenturyLink Field into delirium.
A penalty kick goal by midfielder Osvaldo Alonso opened the scoring just minutes earlier, dramatically changing the atmosphere both on the pitch and in the stadium. The penalty kick was set up when referee Jair Marrufo issued a yellow card to defender Tony Beltran for taking down forward Mike Fucito in the box. Alonso fired the penalty kick low and down the middle past Rimando, who hesitated just a moment too long before reacting.
The goal gave the Sounders just under 30 minutes to find the series equalizer, but it would prove a task too tall. Seattle sent wave after wave in attack in a thrilling half of soccer that had RSL defenders scrambling, but Rimando recorded three key second-half saves and a makeshift RSL defense missing Olave and Borchers managed to hold on.
After an erratic season that rarely saw RSL at full strength or in top form, the Claret and Cobalt are looking much like the team that won the MLS Cup in 2009 and took Monterrey to the brink in the 2010-2011 CONCACAF Champions League final.
Jason Kreis reconstructed his defense, starting Chris Schuler and Chris Wingert at centerback and inserting Tony Beltran at left back. The unit held up well in the first half, but began giving up chances in droves in the second half.
It wasn't a memorable performance for an RSL side that looked so good in the first leg, but the game will give Real Salt Lake something to work on heading into the Western Conference Final.
"I think that in some ways it may have been good that we didn't play that well tonight, to get our feet back on the ground and to say to a team that won the game 3-0 that that was probably the peak of our peak, and this may be the low of our low," Kreis said. "So we need to perform somewhere in the middle this weekend."
Already heading into the night without key midfielder Mauro Rosales, who reinjured his right knee in the regular season finale, the Sounders lost midfielders Alvaro Fernandez (hamstring) and Brad Evans (ankle) in the first 20 minutes of the match. Schmid substituted Neagle and Roger Levesque for the injured players, but the substitutions hampered his flexibility down the stretch.
The Sounders spent much of the first half in the attacking third but couldn’t find a goal despite multiple chances. Montero was left unmarked just yards from the goal in the seventh minute, but sent a header wide right. In the 36th minute, defender Jeff Parke fired a rocket from distance into a seemingly empty net, but Beltran blocked the goal mouth with a leaping header.
Seattle looked shockingly flat and uninspired in Saturday’s embarrassing 3-0 loss in Utah, so it was no surprise to see Schmid shuffle his lineup Wednesday. Fucito reclaimed a starting forward spot from Sammy Ochoa. Neagle, who started wide right in place of Rosales Saturday, sat for Evans, while Erik Friberg assumed Evans’ starting position in the central midfield.
The changes nearly produced the comeback, but in the end Seattle's season ends the same way it has the past two seasons, with a conference semifinal exit.
The loss also marks the end an illustrious career for Kasey Keller, who recorded a critical late save in his final match before retiring.
“It’s been a helluva three years,” Keller said of his time with Seattle. “It’s been an honor to come home and play for something as cool as the Sounders have become and were from the first minute.”