Real Salt Lake’s season came to a painful close at Rio Tinto Stadium on Thursday night, when the Claret-and-Cobalt fell victim to a late goal to lose 1-0 on aggregate to Seattle Sounders FC in the two-legged Western Conference Semifinal series.
Seattle MF Mario Martinez scored the series’ lone goal in the 81st minute on Thursday night. The Honduran international scored an absolute cracker, smashing FW Fredy Montero’s chip on one bounce from the top left corner of the box inside the far post.
The game got off to a blistering start, with both sides getting up and down the field and testing the opposing defenses. Real Salt Lake controlled the early minutes, registering the first chance of the match in the 10th minute. FW Alvaro Saborio started the play, slipping MF Ned Grabavoy through on the left side of the box. Grabavoy ran onto the ball and fired a first time shot from a tight angle that Sounders GK Michael Gspurning held.
Seattle had its first look at goal in the 17th minute. Montero played a ball from the top of the box to MF Christian Tiffert on the right side, allowing the German DP to fire a shot that rolled a few yards wide of the far post.
RSL had the best chance of the half in the 19th minute. DF Kenny Mansally – who was only in the starting lineup because regular DF Chris Wingert injured his right quad during warm-ups – whipped a great cross in from the left wing, sneaking the ball past a Seattle defender and onto the foot of FW Paulo Jr. at the near post. Unfortunately for RSL, the unmarked Paulo couldn’t keep his shot on frame, hitting his first time right-footer wide of the near post.
Seattle had a scare in the 25th minute, when Tiffert had to be tended to after opening up a big cut on the side of his head following a 50-50 challenge with RSL DF Jamison Olave. Thankfully, Sounders trainers were able to close the laceration and get Tiffert back on the field a few minutes after the injury.
RSL GK Nick Rimando – so huge in the first leg – came up big for the Claret-and-Cobalt in the 31st minute. Martinez curled a 30-yard free kick toward the top right corner, but Rimando was able to get a hand on it, deflecting the dangerous drive over the bar.
Real Salt Lake had a decent dead ball chance of its own in the 40th minute. MF Javier Morales had the opportunity, curling a 25-yarder over the wall, into the wind and the hands of Gspurning.
RSL had another look before the close of the half. Some nice combination play in Seattle’s third allowed Saborio to lay a ball off to MF Will Johnson, whose 23-yard left footer got caught in the stiff breeze before Gspurning saved.
Rimando absolutely robbed Seattle at the start of the second half. A failed RSL clearance allowed Sounders MF Brad Evans to run free onto a ball at the top of the arc in the 46th minute and he nearly took advantage, ripping a low first time shot to the right post only for Rimando to paw it away with an incredible reaction stop.
Neither side had another chance until the 62nd minute, when RSL nearly went ahead on two separate occasions. The first chance came on a dead ball. Morales lofted a free kick in from the right wing and no one from either team got onto it, allowing the ball to bounce in the six yard box and forcing Gspurning into an awkward – and relatively difficult – save.
The second chance was more conventional. RSL DF Nat Borchers got on the end of MF Kyle Beckerman’s lofted cross at the left post, but couldn’t quite muster enough power on his header to beat Gspurning, nodding the chance into the Austrian GK’s hands.
The match kept its wild pace, with Seattle getting a good look at goal in the 64th minute. Evans got on the end of a cross at the left post, nodding the ball to Montero just inside the penalty spot. Montero nearly headed the chance home, flicking his header just wide of the far post.
RSL DF Tony Beltran knocked heads with Evans on the play, opening a cut on his forehead. RSL trainers were able to stop the bleeding and get Beltran back onto the field in relatively short order.
Real Salt Lake substitute FW Fabian Espindola – who didn’t start the game due to a hamstring injury – had a good chance in the 68th minute. The Argentine forward ran onto a Saborio flicked header at the top of the box, but Gspurning met him there, stopping Espindola’s attempt to head the ball on goal in a bang-bang play.
RSL kept attacking after Espindola’s chance, nearly carving out a goal in the 78th. Morales put Saborio in on goal with a fantastic through ball from midfield to the top of the box, but the Costa Rican striker couldn’t quite control the pass, eventually losing possession to a Sounders DF.
Martinez put Seattle ahead three minutes later.
“I feel great that the team was able to finally qualify for the next round of the playoffs,” Martinez stated. “The goals will always give you confidence and it was a great opportunity for me personally and for me to defend the colors of the team.”
RSL responded to his strike with a multitude of offensive pressure and a pair of attacking substitutions but – although the team came close on several occasions – couldn’t quite find the all-important equalizer.
Though the season ended sooner than the team would’ve liked, Real Salt Lake still had a banner 2012, setting the club records for points (57), wins (17) and goals (46) during the regular season.