MLS playoffs: RSL advances to Western Conference final despite 2-0 loss to Seattle
Seattle • Whew.
That was about all anyone wearing Real Salt Lake colors could say after an intense battle royale Wednesday night.
Yet there was also a strong sense of accomplishment. RSL will have a chance to play for the MLS Cup.
RSL survived barely in a 2-0 loss to the Seattle Sounders FC. Due to its three-goal cushion coming into the game, Real walked away and into the Western Conference final against either New York or Los Angeles, with an overall 3-2 score.
"It was never a pretty game," said RSL defender Tony Beltran, who headed away a sure goal late in the first half. "It was a complete battle out there. Credit to us, we dug in."
Beltran, the shortest player on the CenturyLink Field, came up with the game's biggest play, one that kept the game between RSL and Seattle Sounders FC scoreless, and a goal that became more significant when, later, it looked as if RSL might melt down in front of 36,021 roaring fans.
Seattle pressure finally paid off in the second half with a storm of goals. But it could have and should have been worse as the Sounders pelted RSL keeper Nick Rimando with shot after shot.
Eventually, Seattle would outshoot RSL 26-4.
"The entire night was just a difficult night," said RSL coach Jason Kreis, who compared the two games to his team's entire season. One game RSL dominated and in the next they were the ones being dominated. "Credit to Seattle and to their crowd for creating that atmosphere."
In many ways, it was amazing that RSL's 3-0 edge coming into the second leg of this Western Conference semifinal held up until the 56th minute.
Seattle, which scored just one goal in five previous playoff games, finally exploded in the second half.
The Sounders, one of the top scoring teams in the second half of the MLS regular season, broke through when Beltran was caught grabbing a Seattle player inside the 18-yard box.
Beltran received a yellow card and the Sounders were given a penalty kick. Osvaldo Alonso drilled his shot straight and true to give Seattle a 1-0 lead. RSL still held a 3-1 aggregate advantage and continued to play a defensive brand of soccer, relying mostly on counterattacks.
In the 61st minute, Lamar Neagle slotted a ball past RSL keeper Nick Rimando for the Sounders' second goal.
The last 30 minutes, including the five minutes of extra time, were played totally in the Real half as defenders were scrambling as if their hair were on fire.
Play for both sides became more frantic as the time wore to its conclusion.
"Doesn't matter how you move on as long as you're moving on," RSL defender Will Johnson said. "We knew we were in for a battle, we knew it was going to be tough. I don't think there is a sense of relief, just a sense of accomplishment. We're moving on."
There were early indications that Real would be in for a long night. Rimando's first save came within the first minutes. It was a trend that would continue without letup.
And RSL's counterattacks were light on "attack." The lone exception came in the 79th minute, when RSL forward Fabian Espindola found himself behind the Seattle defense. Sounders keeper Kasey Keller deflected the shot to safety.
The action inside RSL's 18-yard box often resembled a pinball machine, with Real players acting as the bumpers. Salt Lake had planned on using the Sounders' aggression as a weapon, but relentless Seattle never allowed it to happen.
Early on, the game became a contest of fouls as players from both sides collapsed to the turf in a cold, driving rain. The two teams combined for 24 fouls in the opening 45 minutes.
Injuries forced Seattle's Alvaro Fernandez and Brad Evans from the game. Several RSL players, including Javier Morales and Andy Williams, were dazed by body blows.
"We knew it was going to be a fight," Williams said. "The boys gutted it out. We're defending the last 20 minutes, we just couldn't get into a groove tonight.
"Hopefully we go to New York, but if it is L.A., then we have to go through the top two teams in the league."
R Seattle scores its first goal in the 56th minute on a penalty kick by Osvaldo Alonso.
• The Sounders pull to within 3-2 aggregate on a goal by Lamar Neagle in the 61st minute.
• RSL advances to the Western Conference final against either the New York Red Bulls or the L.A. Galaxy.