The Seattle Sounders pushed Real Salt Lake to the brink Friday night, but will head to Utah needing goals after a 0-0 draw. Several great chances, many of which came from Sammy Ochoa shots, were thwarted by RSL goalkeeper and Seattle nemesis Nick Rimando. Rimando had one of the best games of his career, barely tipping away strong shot after diabolical header, and nearly single-handedly kept his club from losing by a similar margin to what Salt Lake posted on Seattle last year. The one that will be most remembered came off a corner kick, found the head of Ochoa, and seemed destined for a goal when Rimando got a finger on it, tipping it JUST over of the crossbar and onto the top netting. It also sends both teams to the second leg, where a single goal could decide the fates of both teams.
The scoreless draw belies what was a terrific effort from the entire Sounders team. Some credit must go to RSL's strategy of playing for a tie, allowing significant space in the midfield. But for a defense playing "bend without breaking", they were sure showing cracks. Rimando was forced to make five saves, most of which were of the highlight variety. Interplay, as Ross Fletcher would put it, was excellent in a way that can't be stated enough. passes were finding their targets in space, crosses were landing on the right heads, and most of those eight corners taken were things of beauty. Mauro Rosales was the force the Sounders lacked in last year's playoff contests. Nearly every dangerous attack ran down the right side, getting balls fed from Adam Johansson and Osvaldo Alonso.
Speaking of those two, the defensive effort deserves praise. It doesn't appear so special at first glance, but two of the four saves Michael Gspurning was credited with were of the pedestrian variety, thanks to a back line that largely kept him clean. Salt Lake's strong counter offense got room only a handful of times throughout the match, but never put themselves into what would seem like a sure shot situation. Jeff Parke continued his underrated season, managing Fabio Espindola in the first half to the point that the frustrating goal-scorer wasn't part of the equation in this contest.
For a 0-0 draw, there is so much good to talk about. It is hard to even understand how the team could play so well and yet not get the win. But perhaps that will add even more fuel to the fire that clearly burned in the hearts of every Sounder on the pitch tonight. There was a drive that the team hasn't matched all year, and it started in the very first minute, when Christian Tiffert bowled over a player to get after the ball. Fredy Montero especially worked hard to get involved in the game, coming all the way back into the defensive half to make plays. But everyone showed a vigor, a desire, a passion, to make sure they got a result. Seattle was the aggressor, and they played like it.
Things will be different in a week. The Sounders will not have home field advantage. They will not have familiarity with the pitch, nor will they be able to sleep in their own beds that night. The fans will, at least in the majority, be pulling for the Cobalt, not the Rave. Though no longer a fortress, RSL is still tough to beat up there in the mountains. However, a replication of Friday's performance will make all those factors moot.
Sigi Schmid, asked about the game afterwards, said something to the effect of "If we play (in the second leg) like we did today, I like our chances". And he is absolutely right. If the Sounders, hopefully including a healthy Eddie Johnson, put in the effort and focus that they did Friday night, they are going to give Salt Lake everything they can handle in Sandy, Utah. It felt important to get a win at home. And a win would have been OOOOOHHH so nice. But feel free to feel good about this team's chances on the road. The Sounders are finding themselves, and like the goals, everything is going to come together in time. If they get past this round, Seattle has a real shot at this whole darn thing.