Sounders FC has an offseason to think about how close it came.
Needing a three-goal victory to have any chance of advancing to the Western Conference final, the Sounders managed only a 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake on Wednesday at CenturyLink Field.
That wasn’t enough to overcome the hole the Sounders had dug with a 3-0 loss in the first game of the aggregate-score semifinal series at Sandy, Utah, on Saturday.
“I think tonight we finally figured out how we have to play in the playoffs,” coach Sigi Schmid said. “ We figured it out one game too late. If we would have played with 60 percent of this intensity in Salt Lake I think we would have been good. Hopefully, it will make us a better team.”
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That series-opening misstep sent the Sounders into the deciding game needing almost everything to go right. Instead, things started going wrong almost immediately.
In the third minute Fredy Montero missed wide from close range. Before the 22nd minute, half the starting midfielders – Alvaro Fernandez and Brad Evans – were out with injuries. In the 37th minute, a Jeff Parke shot on goal was headed away by defender Tony Beltran. In the 42nd minute, a Montero goal was waved off because he bumped goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
“I didn’t feel there was a need to change (formations at halftime) because we were dominating the game and creating chances, so we continued to push out of (a 4-4-2),” Schmid said of the scoreless first half. “ We told them keep doing what we’re doing and the goals will come.”
The first came in the 56th minute, when Osvaldo Alonso knocked in a penalty kick.
The next came five minutes later: Lamar Neagle finishing after a pass from Montero.
“I just put it back across the goal and it ended up going in,” Neagle said. “ We knew we had a lot of time. I definitely thought we could put another one away.”
Kasey Keller came up with one dazzling final save in the 79th minute, stopping Fabian Espindola on a breakaway.
That kept Seattle within striking distance. But despite a 26-4 advantage in shots, the Sounders never got the third goal needed to extend their season. And when it ended, so did Keller’s playing career.
“It’s been a hell of a three years – an honor to come home and play for something as cool as the Sounders,” Keller said. “ You couldn’t have asked for a better end of my career. Of course, holding an MLS Cup in a couple of weeks would have been tremendous, but you can’t fault anybody. We had one of those bad days a couple of days ago and came back here and restored a ton of pride. We just came up a little tiny bit short.”
That ended the Sounders’ third MLS season with 19 wins, eight losses and nine draws after it began in mid-March. In all competitions, they went 27-11-10. They won the U.S. Open Cup for the third time, thereby qualified for CONCACAF Champions League for the third time, and advanced out of Champions League group play for the first time. They won the Cascadia Cup competition against Northwest rivals Portland and Vancouver, B.C.
What they did not do was break their record of never having won a playoff series. They were eliminated in the first round for the third consecutive season.
“It’s definitely a very hollow, empty feeling in our stomachs at this stage,” Schmid said. “As I told the team, I’m happy we got our first playoff win and 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 our true colors.”
Real Salt Lake, the 2009 MLS Cup winner, advances to the Western Conference final against the winner of the New York-Los Angeles series, which resolves today.