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Kurt Kragthorpe: RSL just good enough to survive Seattle

Published November 3, 2011 10:06 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Seattle

Somehow, when Real Salt Lake's Ned Grabavoy scored a late goal in last Saturday's game, you just knew it was going to mean something in the end.

Everything, actually.

If that goal seemed like just a bonus at the time, it became bigger and bigger as the minutes agonizingly ticked away in the second half Wednesday night at CenturyLink Field in the second leg of this Western Conference semifinal matchup.

Eventually, RSL finished off the franchise's best 2-0 loss ever — maybe even the most important, impressive multiple-goal defeat in MLS history.

Thanks to Grabavoy's 88th-minute goal in Sandy, Real took a 3-0 victory in the first leg. So the visitors could afford to lose by two goals Wednesday and still win 3-2 in aggregate. Wouldn't you know, that's exactly what happened.

RSL won without scoring — but not without delivering a phenomenal effort under all kinds of pressure.

"We never were able to gain any ground, or get out of our half," said RSL coach Jason Kreis.

The outcome evoked as much sighing as celebrating by the winners, as RSL did just what it had to do.

This became strictly an exercise in survival, especially after Seattle scored two goals in the first 16 minutes of the second half on a rainy night in front of 36,021 fans in the league's loudest, most intimidating venue.

This soccer game was unlike anything else in other sports, with RSL's players going on the road knowing they could lose decisively — just not horribly so — and come home victorious. All it would take to advance was allowing two goals or fewer, even without scoring themselves.

This was like going into the final round of a golf tournament with a six-stroke lead, or being ahead by three touchdowns at halftime in football. All these guys had to do was keep aiming for the middle of the green or pick up a few first downs and run out the clock.

And yet, nothing about it was going to be easy.

The tricky part was that Real was ill-suited to bunker down completely, with defenders Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave sidelined by injuries. Regardless of RSL's seemingly comfortable cushion, just hanging on required a full effort.

This was 90 minutes of nerve-wracking, finger-in-the-dike soccer. Anyone watching as of halftime had to believe that Seattle would score eventually, and then the pressure really would intensify on RSL's makeshift defense.

No kidding.

The final shot count was 26-4 in Seattle's favor.

The Sounders registered 15 shots in the first half alone. RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando was credited with three saves, while defender Tony Beltran made the biggest play of the half. With Rimando out of position, Seattle's Jeff Parke fired a shot toward an open net. Beltran managed to head the ball over the crossbar.

The shutout did not last long, once the second half started. Beltran's foul resulted in a penalty kick, with Osvaldo Alonso converting. About five minutes later, Lamar Neagle scored again for the Sounders.

So with nearly 30 minutes to play, RSL's aggregate lead suddenly was down to 3-2.

Seattle just kept coming, but Rimando and his defense — which included everybody in the lineup, under the circumstances — managed to fend off the Sounders.

Real could have scored a potential clinching goal in the 79th minute, but Seattle goalkeeper Kasey Keller denied Fabian Espindola on a breakaway. Of course, going ahead 4-2 in aggregate at that point would have made things just too easy for RSL.

The reality was that this wild adventure would last right to the end, when one last Seattle flurry failed to deliver a goal and RSL advanced.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com Twitter: @tribkurt