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There was no doubt that the mountain the Seattle Sounders were trying to climb was steep. They managed to scale exactly two-thirds of it. The Sounders won Wednesday's second leg of the Western Conference semifinal 2-0, but it wasn't enough to overcome their 3-0 deficit they had dug in the first leg. As a result, their season is over, at the exact same point in the season it has ended each of the first two years.
This time, it at least feels different. For one, the season ended with the Sounders' first-ever MLC Cup playoff victory. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, this game goes in the books as a win.
Despite coming up short, there were undeniable positives to come out of this game. For the first time, they showed they were capable of stepping up to the challenge that is the MLS playoffs. They were facing a very good RSL team and were clearly the superior side, outshooting their opponents 26-4 and out-possessing them 61-39. It was as thoroughly a dominating performance as we've seen from the Sounders all year, possibly in their entire history.
Among the individual positives were the play of guys like Mike Fucito and Lamar Neagle, both of whom were probably playing with a bit of a chip on their shoulder. Fucito started the first leg on the bench and gave RSL fits every minute he was on the field. His biggest moment was drawing the penalty that ultimately led to Osvaldo Alonso's goal that really got the momentum swinging the Sounders' way.
Neagle was coming off a nightmare performance in the first leg in which he looked very much overwhelmed by his first playoff appearance. He started this game on the bench, but was called upon in the 14th minute when Alvaro Fernandez was taken out with an injury. It took Neagle a little while to adjust to game, but once he found his groove he was among the Sounders' most effective players. It culminated with a 61st minute goal, taking a nice feed from Fredy Montero and putting it past RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
It still wasn't enough. The Sounders were looking to do nothing less than make history, and while it was a valiant effort, it will likely be largely forgotten. The Sounders have a right to feel satisfied with the season, but it doesn't make it any less disappointing.
Lamar Neagle had the kind of game you want to forget as soon as you get in the locker room on Saturday. So far, he's having the kind of game you tell your kids about on Wednesday.
It's not just the goal he scored that cut Real Salt Lake's aggregate lead to 3-2. It's how he's constantly been pressuring the RSL back line. Sending in dangerous crosses and generally creating the kind of spark the Sounders needed badly in the first leg.
What makes this an even more impressive performance is that Neagle is playing much heavier minutes today than he expected to. Sounders coach Sigi Schmid benched Neagle after his horrible performance in the first game. But after an injury to Alvaro Fernandez, Neagle found himself playing in the 14th minute.
Almost as soon as he entered, it was clear that he had put his other game behind him. He looked confident on the ball and dangerous almost every time he touched it.
With 10 minutes left to play, there's still time to become the thing of legend.
In a night full of Seattle Sounders' frustration, there is finally real hope. Osvaldo Alonso converted a penalty in the 56th minute and Lamar Neagle scored again five minutes later and a three-goal deficit is suddenly one with a little less than 30 minutes to play.
Of course, there's still a very long way for the Sounders to go. One goal is still one goal and the Sounders have already scored more in the last five minutes than they had scored in their entire playoff history up to this point. That final goal is not going to come easy.
But this is the exact situation Sounders fans have been dreaming of. If you had told any of them that the Sounders would need just one goal with 30 minutes left to play, they would happily take it.
History is still a long ways off, but it now appears to be within the Sounders' grasp.
Let's get this out of the way right now: The only place the Seattle Sounders need to win is on the scoreboard. As I write this, they are still trailing by three goals.
Of course, it's not for lack of trying. The Sounders fired 15 shots toward goal in the first half with four of them on frame. Real Salt Lake managed just one shot. The Sounders held possession about 65 percent of the time. They completed about 8 percent more of their passes than RSL.
In a word: They are dominating RSL. And it doesn't matter. Not at all. The only statistic that should matter to the Sounders right now is the number of goals they have scored, and right now they have scored zero.
They are now 37 minutes away from their season ending ignominiously once again. Stopped in the conference semifinals without ever sniffing the lead. The Sounders need to get it together and quick.
The Seattle Sounders came into this match facing an impossible task: Outscore a very good Real Salt Lake team by at least three goals or be eliminated from the playoffs. One half in, and they are not doing nearly enough.
It's still essentially 3-0 RSL, despite the Sounders' best efforts, but efforts really aren't worth all that much right now. Whatever margin for error the Sounders had coming into this game is surely gone. It doesn't matter that the only thing standing between them a at least one goal is Tony Beltran's big ol' head and a possibly dubious foul call against Fredy Montero that negated a goal.
Those are meaningless notes right now, though. Whether or not the Sounders played well enough to get back into the match is quite irrelevant at this point. They have not scored and they need to figure out how to do it three times in a single half. Possible? Sure. Likely? Who cares?
This game should be 1-0 Sounders. It really should. I am not making this up. Jeff Parke hit an absolutely beautiful volley from about 16 yards out that was destined for the back of the net. The only problem was Tony Beltran sticking his big fat head in the way.
Really, it's been that kind of night so far for the Sounders as they chase a 3-0 deficit against Real Salt Lake in the second leg of their MLS Cup playoff game. The Sounders have managed to control possession, have taken lots of shots and so far have nothing to show for it.
Parke's was their best legitimate chance, but Fredy Montero actually put one in the back of the net a few minutes later. It was, of course, all for naught as referee Jair Marrufo called a foul as Montero went up for what seemed to be a 50/50 ball to these biased eyes.
It's been that kind of night, though.
I happen to think pretty highly of Real Salt Lake's whole deal. They have won the right way, for most party, play attractive soccer by MLS standards and have some pretty interesting characters. But, man, tonight they are butchers.
Of course, the Sounders are being accused of diving by the RSL faithful (and what else would you expect?) but there's literally no upside to the Sounders faking injuries and wasting time while they are down 3-0. It's just ridiculous to think otherwise.
Still, the Sounders are at least making it interesting. They've created some chances, although not quality shots, and are holding possession much better than they did at anytime of the first leg in Salt Lake.
But unless referee Jair Marrufo starts showing some cards, I'm afraid this physicality is going to make a comeback next to impossible.
If you were wondering what kind of physical affair we'd be in for, we have our answer in the first 10 minutes. No fewer than three players have required some kind of attention from the trainers and there have been close to 10 fouls with neither side looking like they intend to yield much ground.
The biggest scare for the Sounders, though, was when Fredy Montero actually had to come off the field. As tough as the Sounders' task is being down 3-0, it would have become next to impossible without their star striker. Luckily, he was able to come back onto the field just a few minutes later.
The Sounders were not so lucky with Alvaro Fernandez. The left midfielder hurt himself on a collision, remained in the game for a few minutes but had to be pulled off for Lamar Neagle. The loss of Fernandez is no small thing, as he was the Sounders' second leading scorer.
Ever since news of Mauro Rosales' injury first broke, there was a pretty strong expectation that he'd be healthy enough to at least suit up for one of the Seattle Sounders' MLS Cup playoff games. Even after coach Sigi Schmid warned us that the injury was slow healing, we held out hope. The source of our hope? Well, mostly blind faith. But there were also those among us that were hoping Schmid was simply pulling a "Hayden Fox" with his star midfielder.
In case you are unaware of the particulars of early-1990s sitcoms, here's what happened: On the eve of the Fox's big bowl game, his star quarterback gets injured. News comes out that he's wheel-chair bound and likely out for the foreseeable future.
Despite this, Fox's team hangs tough and with his team needing a score at the end of the game, he summons his quarterback who has been faking all along! The quarterback rushes onto the field and leads his team to a game-winning score.
Every time one of my teams has an injury to a star player in an important game, I always hope my team's coach is just waiting to spring a "Hayden Fox." They never do. Schmid didn't either.
As the lineups came out on Wednesday, Rosales' name was no where to be found. Most certainly not in the starting lineup and not even on the bench. If the Sounders are going to overcome their 3-0 deficit, they'll need to do it without their playmaker. Let's hope...
If you feel like watching someone go crazy tonight, be sure to follow this StoryStream as Jeremiah will be giving a highly emotional recounting of the game whenever the moment strikes him.
The Sounders have dug themselves a pretty deep hole, on that there is universal agreement. If the expression is "they've made their bed and now they'll have to lie in it" then instead of linens Seattle decided to use sandpaper. To advance, Seattle has to score three goals in 90 minutes; to give themselves a better chance than the flip of a coin, they'll have to add another in extra time. And they'll have to accomplish all of this while keeping a clean sheet against Real Salt Lake. Either task is difficult enough on its own; combined things look even more dire.
But you knew that. (If you didn't, sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Probably should have watched that other game though.) In a season largely defined by triumph over massive obstacles, this game will perhaps be the most difficult test. And unfortunately, there's no magic bullet; Seattle won't be switching to a three-at-the-back formation (at least not until it gets late) and they're not going to play with all of their available strikers at one time. If the Sounders are going to pull off one of the more impressive comebacks in MLS history, they're going to have to do it by playing the same way they've been playing all season at the highest level they are capable. The Sounders are the highest scoring team in MLS after all. The issue in the first leg was not tactical, it was entirely a result of a terrible performance. A Sounders team clicking on all levels is more than capable of scoring three or more goals in a single game. It's happened four times this season (three times in MLS, once in the CONCACAF Champions League) and though Real Salt Lake are of a higher quality than Toronto FC, Comunicaciones, Columbus and DC United RSL has lost by three goals twice this season and neither time to a team as good as the Sounders. There were extenuating circumstances in both games, but when you're looking for reasons to cling to slim hopes proof of concept is good enough.
The reality of the situation is that a flawless performance from Seattle will not be enough. They'll need outside help, whether it come in the form of sheer dumb luck, of RSL having a game equally as bad as the one Seattle played on Saturday or (more realistically) a combination of the two. The Sounders are nowhere near as bad a team as they appeared to be on Saturday, but a lot of the credit has to go to RSL for playing well enough to highlight how poor of a performance it was. To have a realistic chance of advancing, the Sounders will have to turn the tables and make RSL look just as poor.
And just to compound the difficulties, no matter what the scoreboard at CenturyLink says this game is not starting 0-0. It's unlikely that a Jason Kreis coached team is ever going to play a style that could be described as negative, but they've got a sizable lead and their primary aim will be to protect it. We've seen the Sounders break down comically bunkered defenses before, but few of them have the quality in defense of Real Salt Lake. In that sense, the status of the visitors' center backs is going to be massive; if both starters are close to full health, scoring more than once or twice is going to be insanely difficult. If one or both is healthy enough to play but at a reduced level of effectiveness things will be slightly easier, and if one or both is forced to sit this one out it will be a huge break for Seattle. No one hopes for injuries, but attrition is a huge part of the game whether it's fair or not. If Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers are injured, that benefits the Sounders and could have a massive impact on how this one plays out.
Ultimately, the reality is this; the odds against Seattle staging a comeback and advancing are ludicrously high. But given what we know about the Sounders, there's reason for hope. And even if the Sounders can't recover, there's still the opportunity to save some face. This is probably the last Sounders game until CONCACAF Champions League play picks up again in early March. As frustrating an end to the season as this would be, it's still not anywhere near as bad as four months without the Sounders. And if you choose to skip it, there's always the chance you'll miss out on something pretty special.
That was inexcusably terrible. Every single element of the Sounders performance was atrocious and embarrassing, and a humiliating 3-0 scoreline flattered the Sounders. There aren't even adjectives strong enough to describe how terrible Seattle was in every phase of the game. The USL era Sounders would have mopped the floor with the impostors that took the pitch wearing rave green tonight.
There's absolutely no sense in attempting to catalog all of the things that went wrong. Osvaldo Alonso was terrible. Fredy Montero was terrible. Alvaro Fernandez was terrible. On most days that's going to be enough to doom Seattle, but everyone else on the pitch wearing green was equally bad. Thing the first goal was offside? Don't think it's fair to count Saborio's wonder-goal against the Sounders? Okay, fine. But the Sounders still lose 1-0, are lucky not to lose 4-0 and even luckier not to have lost Alonso to a red card after his cold-cocking of Saborio.
This was just beyond embarrassing. There's not much else to say. The Seattle Sounders have shown over the course of the season that they are one of the best teams in MLS and even a top-10 team in CONCACAF. That team didn't show up tonight. the one that did ought to be ashamed of themselves.
My colleagues over at SBNation Soccer have been doing a pretty fantastic job with their coverage of the MLS Cup playoffs all week, and tonight's first leg of the Western Conference semi-final will be no exception. They'll have lineups, regular updates on what's happening in the game, analysis of goals, insight and most likely plenty of cutting sarcasm and witty bon mots. Still not convinced? Here's a selection of their work so far:
Backe only brought five bench players. He somehow duped a German goalkeeper into playing for his team. He refuses to play the next-great-American-prospect. He loves him some Mehdi Ballouchy. So far, it's all paying off and I'm starting to wonder if maybe he's just out-crazied all of us.
Apparently New York Red Bulls coach Hans Backe thinks this will be his best coaching job yet if his team wins ... this ... one ... game. That's just dumb. Really, really dumb.
The curse of the CONCACAF Champions League? Really? People believe this?
Get ready for a doozy! I know, the Colorado Rapids and Columbus Crew are usually so entertaining normally that you can't imagine them being any more entertaining, but imagine them playing with nobody in the center of the pitch! That's what we're going to see tonight. That's because the Rapids are playing their normal 4-4-2 with two holding midfielders and the Crew are countering with two holding midfielders of their own. I know, it makes sense.
I bet Tony Pulis is DVRing this to watch later when he's aaaaaaaaaaaaaall aloooooooooooone.
In the 68th minute, the Colorado Rapids' most dangerous player and goal scorer Omar Cummings, a striker, was withdrawn for Wells Thompson. Thompson is a midfielder who is normally deployed on the wing. His best quality, theoretically, is his work rate. His best quality in reality is making really tough tackles, then saying nasty things to the officials.
That's what I thought. So head on over to the mothership and let SBNation Soccer's
cynical jerks irreverent scribes be your guide to the evening's entertainment.
In nearly every sense, this has been the most memorable year in the brief MLS history of the Seattle Sounders. Early turmoil caused by the retirement of Blaise Nkufo and injuries to Steve Zakuani and O'Brian White threatened to derail the season before it even began, but the Sounders shook off their early funk and emerged stronger than they've ever been before. After a season that includes highlights such as an electric month of August, a win over current CONCACAF Champions League holders Monterrey in Mexico en route to the CCL knockout stage, claiming the first MLS-era Cascadia Cup and a third straight US Open Cup title, this has been the Sounders best season by every measure. Still, there's the feeling that more work is left to be done.
The earliest signal that the Sounders may well be on the verge of accomplishing something pretty special this season came on May 28th. Going into the game, Real Salt Lake had not lost a game at home since May 16th, 2009. 90 minutes later, the streak was over. The game itself was far from remarkable, but the result undeniably was; even the most optimistic Sounders fans saw wining at Rio Tinto as a near impossible mountain to climb, but the Sounders (who hadn't exactly been setting the world on fire to that point) managed to pull it off. At the time it just seemed an improbable but important win, but in hindsight it was a sign the club had grown up a bit (not to mention an early indicator of the strength of the Sounders depth.) There would be more growth and evolution to come (the Sounders managed to win the game in large part to a midfield stifling diamond 4-4-2 formation after all) but for many it was a sign that perhaps this Sounders team was different.
So, after 63 points and some pretty excellent runs in non-league competition, what do the Sounders have left to prove? That's largely going to depend on who you ask, but for the sake of this discussion let's assume the MLS Cup playoffs are the ultimate measure of success. If that's the case, then Seattle still has a great deal to prove. A promising first season was ended by an excellent Houston Dynamo team without the Sounders so much as having a sniff of goal. Seattle would manage to get on the scoresheet a year later against the LA Galaxy, but it came far too late for the goal to be consequential. It would be difficult to argue that this isn't the best Sounders team ever assembled, but for many fans it will be tough to see this season as a step forward without a deeper run into the playoffs, and though many might disagree with that assessment (myself included, in case it actually needed saying) the organization itself does not appear to be among them. The Sounders want to make progress in all arenas this season, and until they make it past their first playoff opponent that goal will not have been attained.
So, winning this tie is a pretty big deal. Even those that are skeptical of playoffs in general would admit to that. And the first step to winning this tie is keeping things close in the first leg. Real Salt Lake may no longer be unbeatable at home, but Rio Tinto is still an incredibly difficult place to play. And with a short turnaround, Seattle has to be careful not to wear themselves out in the thin air. Sigi Schmid has been adamant that the Sounders are going to Rio Tinto with a win as their ultimate goal and I do not doubt the truth of that assertion at all, but the reality of the situation is that in a playoff system with no away-goal tiebreakers, the Sounders top priority needs to be keeping Real Salt Lake off the board. The Sounders have a potent enough attack that they're likely to score at least one against all but the most negative opposition (something that doesn't describe RSL) no matter the tactical approach. There's no harm or shame in playing a slightly more conservative style and if the Sounders can head home on level terms (or, at the risk of cursing things) with an advantage the odds will tip even further in their favor. But play too aggressively and head home trailing? Well, RSL doesn't like to bunker too often, but when they do it's nearly impossible to get through.
in the end, a deeper back line and attack more reliant on the counter than normal will likely suit Seattle's available personnel a bit better than their typical approach, especially given the altitude. If the defense can keep things together, the Sounders are going to be in very good shape. If not, this could be a nervous four days. RSL's defense isn't good enough to bet on a clean sheet against the Sounders, but they're a unit that's difficult to break down. As fun as it might be to see Seattle come out guns-a-blazin' and attacking the opposition's goal with reckless abandon, it's just not the most prudent approach.
A look at some key facts ahead of tomorrow's opening leg of the MLS Cup playoff tie between the Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake.
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