By JASON MITCHELL
SEATTLE, Wash. – An early red card looked like it might doom the Seattle Sounders in their Western Conference clash vs. Real Salt Lake on Wednesday night, but the Sounders gave RSL all they could handle and rode a strong night from their goalkeeper to earn a precious point.
Michael Gspurning turned in a standout performance, including a pair of clutch late saves, to help the Sounders earn a scoreless draw in front of a crowd of 38,365 at CenturyLink Field.
It was the third straight shutout for the Austrian goalkeeper. Gspurning, replacing the legendary Kasey Keller for Seattle this year, also came into the night allowing a paltry and league-leading 0.74 goals per match.
Missing both Eddie Johnson and three of its starting defenders, Seattle also lost defender Zach Scott to a second yellow card in just the 30th minute. Scott earned his first yellow for a tackle in the 10th minute, and picked up a controversial second yellow from referee Ricardo Salazar for a hard and slightly late tackle on Javier Morales only 20 minutes later.
Salazar has been a target of Seattle fans for years, and Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid didn’t mince words in a televised interview at halftime, calling the referee Real Salt Lake’s “12th man.”
After the match, Schmid ran through a list of complaints about the refereeing before concluding, “It just seems like whenever there’s something 50-50, obviously we don’t get the break with him.”
Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis, however, wasn’t buying that the officiating benefited solely his team.
Scott’s second yellow was a “straight red card,” Kreis said, later adding, “I don’t think that Seattle’s the only one that could make complaints about the calls tonight.”
Despite being down a man, the Sounders (14-7-11) nonetheless outplayed Real Salt Lake (17-11-5) for most of the remaining hour. And somehow, a back line featuring one starter, one regular backup, a midfielder, and a converted midfielder seeing his first action of the season managed to keep Salt Lake off the board.
Seattle’s defense started the night missing right back Adam Johansson to international duty, left back Leo Gonzalez to a pulled hamstring, and center back Jhon Kennedy Hurtado to a facial fracture.
Backup Marc Burch started for Gonzalez, Scott started for Hurtado, and midfielder Brad Evans started at right back. When Scott went out, Schmid quickly subbed Michael Seamon into the game at right back and pushed Evans into a central position.
Seamon, a midfielder in the process of being converted to right back, had yet to play this season.
For Seattle, the point keeps second-place in the conference within reach as the regular season draws to a close.
Real Salt Lake, shorthanded itself, did mount a late flurry, but Gspurning—stellar all night with five saves—came up with clutch stops in the closing moments on shots from Chris Schuler and Sebastien Velasquez.
Salt Lake was missing both Alvaro Saborio and Will Johnson to international duties, and Paulo Jr. to an injury picked up in training Tuesday.
The absences surely hurt RSL’s ability to capitalize on its superior numbers.
“Will’s the type of player,” said Kreis, “that when he gets time and space can run the ball at defensive players in the midfield and make them choose. I think we were just missing a little bit of that tonight. ”
As to Saborio, Kreis said, “We all know what an important player he is for us, with the way he holds the ball up for us and gives us a target to always play to upfront, and with his finishing touch around the goal.”
“It’s a big credit to Seattle,” said Kreis, “the amount of work that they put in for 60-some minutes. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to break a team down that is that committed to making sure that they get the point that they so desperately needed as well.”
Real Salt Lake maintained their three-point lead on Seattle in the standings, but while RSL only has one game left to play, the Sounders still host FC Dallas this weekend before visiting the Los Angeles Galaxy on Oct. 28.
The draw pushes RSL five points clear of the Galaxy, and means they will need just a draw in their final regular season match vs. Vancouver to avoid dropping to fourth place in the West. The tie does open the door for Seattle to move past RSL into second place in the West with a win against Dallas.
Here are the match highlights: