SEATTLE – The Sounders FC has become known in 2011 for their come-from-behind victories.
Seven times in the 2011 season, they allowed the first goal, but came back to win the match. In three others they earned a draw after falling behind.
On Wednesday at CenturyLink Field, it looked like they may just have one more dramatic comeback in them after falling behind 3-0 in the first leg of their Western Conference semifinal series with Real Salt Lake.
Osvaldo Alonso and Lamar Neagle scored two early second-half goals and had their hopes kept alive by a tremendous 79th minute save by Kasey Keller, but they couldn’t find the third even while outshooting Real Salt Lake 26-4 on the night, and ended their season with a 3-2 loss on aggregate.
“We sure as hell made it entertaining for everyone to watch, both here and on TV,” said goalkeeper Kasey Keller, whose illustrious career came to an end with the loss.
Though they won the match Wednesday in dominating fashion, the Sounders were doomed by a lackluster performance on Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium.
“It’s definitely a very empty, hollow feeling in our stomachs at this stage,” Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid said. “We had to overcome a lot of obstacles tonight, but we still have an empty feeling from the standpoint that we know we should have done better in Salt Lake. We know we should be going on to the next round if we had done better and so that’s disappointing. But we’re also proud of the fact that we showed our character and we showed our true colors today.”
In a physical first half that saw the Sounders lose Brad Evans and Alvaro Fernandez to injury in the first 18 minutes, Seattle was still able to dominate possession and managed 15 shots and several scoring chances.
Moments after suffering an ankle injury of his own, Fredy Montero found himself on the end of a headed ball from Fernandez in the seventh minute, but his touch pushed the ball just wide of the net.
One sequence of plays in the 35th minute saw two well-taken shots by Seattle knocked clear by Salt Lake defenders. The first came when Alonso thundered a shot from the top of the box that was cleared away for a Seattle throw. Moments later, Jeff Parke hammered a shot from the top of the box toward an open net, but Tony Beltran made a last-ditch effort to clear it off the line to keep the Sounders off the board.
Then Montero got two opportunities in the final minutes of the half. In the 42nd minute he knocked home a loose ball that appeared to get Seattle on the board, but he was whistled for a foul. Two minutes later, he got the ball in space coming up the right side, but his shot from 17 yards out missed high.
Though they still needed three goals in the final 45 minutes, Seattle still had plenty of reasons to be optimistic after bombarding RSL in the first half. They carried that momentum into the second half and didn’t take long before finally getting on the board by way of an Alonso penalty.
Mike Fucito got into the box, but was dragged down from behind by Tony Beltran to earn the penalty and Alonso thumped it past Nick Rimando for the 1-0 lead in the 56th minute.
With new life breathed into their lungs, the Sounders continued the attack and Neagle came up with a great moment just five minutes later. Montero played the ball across the top of the box to Neagle up the left side, and the breakout midfielder knocked it inside the far post to pull Seattle within one goal on aggregate.
“We’ve scored plenty of goals this year and I knew that as long as we kept it tight we gave ourselves a chance down to the end,” Keller said.
Seattle pushed all their numbers forward while Salt Lake fought to defend to the final whistle. Their efforts were led by a flurry from Neagle that included a shot in the 64th minute that forced Rimando into a flying save to keep his right-footed blast out of the corner of the net.
In that fight to the finish, Fabian Espindola gave the visitors a chance to put the game away on a breakout run down the middle when he got behind the Seattle defense and into the box. However, Keller made one final incredible save in the 79th minute, getting his gloves to the shot and parrying the ball away for a corner kick.
Though they continued to pressure Salt Lake well into stoppage time, they couldn’t manage another dangerous effort on goal and their season came to an abrupt halt.
“It was still a great season for us,” Schmid said. “We accomplished a lot of things – we got more points, we won another U.S. Open Cup, we moved on to the next round of the CCL. All those things are showing our continued growth as a team, but obviously we’re disappointed with the result tonight.”
The Sounders finished the MLS regular season at 18-7-9, also winning the US Open Cup for a third straight year and advancing to the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals with a 4-3-1 record. They will open the 2012 season with Champions League quarterfinal matches in early March.
Sounders FC – Osvaldo Alonso (PK) 56; Lamar Neagle (Fredy Montero, Osvaldo Alonso) 61.
Real Salt Lake – None.
Sounders FC – Roger Levesque (caution) 62, Leo Gonzalez (caution) 92+.
Real Salt Lake – Tony Beltran (caution) 55; Nick Rimando (caution) 56.
Sounders FC – Kasey Keller, Zach Scott, Jeff Parke, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Leo Gonzalez, Brad Evans (Roger Levesque 21), Osvaldo Alonso, Erik Friberg, Alvaro Fernandez (Lamar Neagle 14), Mike Fucito (Sammy Ochoa 76), Fredy Montero.
Real Salt Lake – Nick Rimando, Robbie Russell, Chris Schuler, Chris Wingert, Tony Beltran, Kyle Beckerman, Will Johnson, Andy Williams (Ned Grabavoy 57), Javier Morales (Luis Gil 89), Alvaro Saborio (Yordany Alvarez 76), Fabian Espindola.