NOTE: This was a lead feature in May’s edition of Sounders Monthly. Our May rivalry edition of Sounders Monthly is out now and available free-of-charge at The NINETY, GuestLink Services locations, Soccer Celebration and Membership Central. You can also access it on the Sounders Mobile App.
Up until the second leg of the 2012 MLS Cup Playoffs, the Sounders had known nothing but postseason heartbreak.
Despite regular-season success in their first three years in Major League Soccer, Seattle could not advance past the Western Conference semifinals. In 2009, the Sounders fell 1-0 to the Houston Dynamo after extra time in the second leg. In ’10, they lost 3-1 to the LA Galaxy. And in ’11, they fell behind 3-0 to Real Salt Lake in the first leg at Rio Tinto, a series Seattle dropped 3-2 after coming up just short in the return home match.
But on an unusual 60-degree evening in Utah on Nov. 8, 2012, after battling to a scoreless draw in Seattle six days before, the Sounders finally found a breakthrough — from the most unlikely of places.
Mario Martinez joined Seattle that August on loan from Honduras’ Real España and had played just four matches down the stretch of the regular season. Yet, there was Martinez, streaking down the left flank begging Fredy Montero to send a pass in his direction. Montero dropped a beauty of a chip to the left side of the 18-yard-box and Martinez let it bounce once before unleashing a howitzer of a one-timed, left-footed strike past a helpless Nick Rimando and into the far corner.
“Amazing, amazing goal,” recalled Sounders General Manager and President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey, who was RSL’s GM at the time. “What I remember about that whole series was how good the goalkeeping was by [Michael] Gspurning and Rimando. I bet there were 10 world-class saves in that series for both sides. It continued to the second leg and you knew that one mistake was going to end it, and sure enough that happened.”
Martinez would play only 17 total games with the Sounders before returning to Real España. His series-clincher against RSL was remarkably his only tally for Seattle.
“We finally got over the hump of beating them away from home in a game that really meant something for us,” said Brad Evans, whose run and subsequent pass to Montero set up Martinez’s goal. “That was a massive one and one I’ll always think of.”
Added head coach Brian Schmetzer, then a Sounders assistant: “In those historical moments in our club, [then-head coach Sigi Schmid] used to say it pretty good, I used to like the way he said it. ‘We always want to be the first: the first to do this, or the first to do that.’ That was the first group of players that won a playoff series.
“The psychological damage that that goal produced gave us an upper hand in that rivalry,” he continued, “because once we beat them, it gave us the, ‘Hey, we can do this,’ type of mentality.”
RSL had already done it. They defeated the LA Galaxy to win the 2009 MLS Cup in the Sounders’ inaugural year — and they won at then-Qwest Field in Seattle.
“For the longest time, we thought we were bulletproof in Seattle because we won a title on that field,” said Lagerwey. “We had all these memories that were warped relative to everybody else because it’s such a tough place to play in. The support was always there, but we were dumb enough to think that we were always going to win because we won a title there.”
This was elevated by the fact that matches between Seattle and RSL always seemed to count for something a little more than your average game. From back-to-back playoff series to the 2015 and ’16 Decision Day clashes, every game had heightened value and each side had competitive, tough-nosed players suiting up.
Osvaldo Alonso and Kyle Beckerman are arguably MLS’ two best defensive midfielders in league history. Their possession and vision are superb, yes, but the way they physically boss a midfield and disrupt attacks by planting themselves just above their respective back lines make playing against them incredibly frustrating.
“I always played against Alonso,” said former RSL attacking midfielder Javier Morales, now with FC Dallas. “He’s a great guy, but on the field he’s so competitive, and I’m the same.”
Added Evans: “On the field, it doesn’t matter what team he’s playing against, Kyle is generally out for blood. One thing I’ll always remember is that they played a 4-4-2 diamond and it was always an Achilles’ heel for us going down there and wondering, ‘How are we going to play this game?’
“For us, you want to beat the best,” Evans continued, “and for them I think they saw us as the better team at the time, and it was, ‘Who can be better?’”
Since the 2009 season, Seattle and RSL are two of the three winningest MLS clubs. Their prolonged consistency in production is unlike anything the league has seen.
It’s no wonder then why, despite no contrived marketing aimed at pitting the two franchises against each other, the intensity and loathing between the Sounders and Real Salt Lake grew from inherent circumstances.
“I think the thing you see is that the rivalry becomes organic, it becomes natural because when you play big games against somebody, somebody has to win and somebody has to go home, and those tend to be pretty memorable games,” said Lagerwey.
“It was definitely organic because it wasn’t something that the league made up, which can tend to happen,” said Evans. “We kind of created this rivalry...It’s a rivalry of proximity but also a rivalry of two really good teams playing against each other at the right time.”
In the grand scheme of things, the Seattle- RSL rivalry may never quite match those in Cascadia or against the LA Galaxy, but the mutual respect and old-fashioned, bare-knuckled attrition is as robust as any MLS has to offer.
“It’s two teams with good dudes who just want to battle each other,” said Evans. “It doesn’t get the press coverage or the build-up a week out, but it’s more of an internal thing. It’s still a big one for us.”