Monson: A final bow (out) for Real Salt Lake
Scorelessness was the name of the match whenever Real Salt Lake and Seattle took the field together, having played nearly four straight games against each other without a goal.
In the 81st minute of Thursday night's elimination playoff game at Rio Tinto Stadium, Sounders midfielder Mario Martinez sent a rocket from the left side past RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando, assisted by Brad Evans and Fredy Montero. It was a rocket that changed everything: this particular outcome, this postseason and maybe Real's future.
Through the closing minutes, RSL did what it could to level the score and alter what might be changed. There were corner kicks, floating balls in front of the goal, a Fabian Espindola miss, an Alvaro Saborio header, a tantalizing ball moving across the goal, but ... ultimately, nothing.
At the final whistle, defender Nat Borchers stood silently for a minute, taking it all in, then walking off, congratulating the opponents who just put RSL away.
Back a few months ago, when Real temporarily hit the skids over a span in the middle of its MLS season after a strong start and before a recovery down the stretch, Borchers said something important. It had to do with the way RSL did its business, the way it was built to do its business, the way it must do its business to be successful.
The club had to sport a bit of controlled purpose and fury.
"We have to be the ones who are pressing, who are more aggressive and physical in our play," he said. "We've gotten away from what we're good at. We're good at being aggressive. We're talented, we're the best team in the league with the ball, and because of that we sometimes get away from the physical nature of the game. We have to want it more."
Turned out, the wanting wasn't the problem.
Yeah, the scoring was.
In a game where the winner took all, and advanced in the playoffs, after an earlier scoreless draw last week in the opener at CenturyLink Field, RSL did exactly what Borchers suggested. It tried real hard, played hard, but simply could not win, falling 1-zip.
On a blustery November night, Real kicked away, with physicality and focus and aggression. Precision, though, was another matter. There were a lot of collisions, a couple of bloodied heads, guys getting chopped down from behind, many play-ons, some nice passes, a few stiff shots and ... no goals.
Until Martinez rearranged that last part.
As has been discussed for most of the season, RSL's enduring core of players, which has been in place and growing ever older for years now, was playing not only for its postseason survival, it was playing for its existence. Nine starters this year played on the 2009 MLS Cup-winning team.
With the loss, this might be it for them. For both competitive and financial reasons, it is likely some personnel changes are coming, although general manager Garth Lagerwey has been busy reminding whoever will listen that his team this season rolled up a club-record number of points, wins and goals.
It also qualified for the MLS postseason for the fifth consecutive time.
But it couldn't advance in the CONCACAF Champions League and it couldn't advance in these playoffs, in two opportunities that ended at home.
The blessings of consistency are notable, but, in this case, the double dose of losing at the end eclipses some of them. And then come the bills. As that core has aged Â many of the veterans are at or around 30 years old it also has gotten more expensive and maybe a bit slower of foot. Not only does RSL want to move forward with its ball-possession soccer, it wants to find enough speed to make it more than a wasted exercise. It also has to deal with a tough salary cap.
Real's players put up a noble effort on Thursday night. The older guys made their play for keeping everything and everyone as they are. But, in one split second, in that 81st minute, their world shifted.
And they may have walked off the field together for the last time.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 AM and 960 AM and 97.5 FM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.
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