SEATTLE – The Western Conference semifinal playoff series between the Sounders FC and Real Salt Lake promised to be an intense affair featuring two of the three best defensive teams in Major League Soccer and two of the top teams in the league over the last four seasons.
Friday night at CenturyLink Field did more than live up to the expectations as the Sounders peppered Nick Rimando with shots throughout the match only to have the RSL goalkeeper come up with what Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis called “one of the single best individual performances by any player that’s ever worn an RSL jersey.”
Sounders FC goalkeeper Michael Gspurning had four saves of his own as the Sounders bottled up the Salt Lake attack to finish the night with a 0-0 draw in the first leg of the two-game, aggregate goal series that concludes Thursday at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah.
“All you can do is create chances, but I was pleased with how we played. I thought we kept them at bay for the majority of the game,” Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid said. “I can’t be displeased with how we played and the effort that we gave tonight. I was very pleased and it’s halftime at zero-zero, we’ve been a good road team, we just have to go to Salt Lake and do well.”
Gspurning was the first to appear in the highlight reel, as Ned Grabavoy made a run behind the Seattle defense and the Seattle goalkeeper slid out at the top of the box to stave off the 23rd minute attack.
In the 33rd minute, the Sounders had two tremendous opportunities off corner kicks that Rimando thwarted with diving stops. The first came off the head of Sammy Ochoa, who sprung free in the middle of the box for a header that Rimando knifed out of the air, popping it off the crossbar and over the top of the frame for a second corner. On the second effort, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado lowered his head for a near-post header and Rimando dove to his left to push it away for the save.
“The ball didn’t want to go in today,” Ochoa said. “As soon as it went off my head, I was sure it was going in, but Nick made a great save.”
Just five minutes later, Salt Lake had some chances of their own as Kyle Beckerman had a shot from the top of the box blocked by Marc Burch. The rebound fell to Will Johnson and he got free for a shot from the right side, but Gspurning sprung to his left to paw away the near-post shot for a remarkable save.
As the second half started, RSL forward and the third-leading scorer in MLS Alvaro Saborio got free for a header, but Gspurning covered it for the save.
It looked like Seattle would have their chance in the 50th minute when Brad Evans made a run up the left side and crossed for Ochoa alone in the box, but Ochoa’s left-footed shot skied over the crossbar and the opportunity slipped away.
One minute later, Christian Tiffert snapped a header in the box that Rimando saved with a dive to his left.
The Sounders continued to put pressure on the goal, but the rhythm was finally disrupted when Tiffert collided with Beckerman and Rimando, leaving the Salt Lake keeper with a cut outside his right eye that required medical attention.
The match was played from box-to-box after that, with only two more shots over the game’s final 24 minutes and eight minutes of stoppage time and the teams were left with a scoreless draw as they now turn their attention to the second leg of the series.
“These playoff games are about whoever puts it away,” Ochoa said. “We just have to hope next game we finish our chances because we might just have one and that one might be the difference.”
The Sounders are optimistic going into the second leg after finishing the season with a top-five road record in league play.
“What was good was that we kept them pretty much at bay for the majority of the game, and what was good is I thought we worked very hard,” Schmid said. “If we play the same way in Salt Lake we’ll come away with a result.”
Thursday’s second leg is scheduled for a 6:30 pm PT start from RSL’s Rio Tinto Stadium.
Sounders FC – None.
Real Salt Lake – None.
Sounders FC – Jeff Parke (caution) 45; Brad Evans (caution) 54.
Real Salt Lake – Kyle Beckerman (caution) 52; Javier Morales (caution) 56.
Sounders FC – Michael Gspurning, Adam Johansson, Jeff Parke, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Marc Burch, Mauro Rosales (Steve Zakuani 94+), Osvaldo Alonso, Christian Tiffert (Mario Martinez 82), Brad Evans, Fredy Montero, Sammy Ochoa (David Estrada 57).
Real Salt Lake – Nick Rimando, Tony Beltran, Nat Borchers, Kwame Watson-Siriboe (Jamison Olave 76), Chris Wingert, Kyle Beckerman, Ned Grabavoy, Javier Morales (Yordany Alvarez 87), Will Johnson, Alvaro Saborio, Fabian Espindola (Paulo Junior 46).