Sounders FC will face holders Los Angeles in the Western Conference final after Mario Martinez's goal secured a 1-0 victory over RSL at Rio Tinto Stadium on Thursday night.
Little, if anything, separated Real Salt Lake and Seattle during the course of their five meetings this season or during their decisive and improbably tight encounter last night. The two combatants knew each other well and negated the strengths of their opposition. They offered up matches that looked more like the tactical affairs in the UEFA Champions League than the occasionally ragged fare found elsewhere in MLS. It was not always alluring or overtly entertaining, but it was certainly engaging in its own way.
It took a strike of the highest quality to provide the necessary margin at Rio Tinto Stadium. Mario Martinez marked his first postseason start by ending the gridlock nine minutes from time with a rasping drive. The effort represented the one moment of brilliance – in the non-goalkeeping division, of course – required to divide two comparable sides.
On the back of Martinez's winner, Seattle earned a berth in the Western Conference final for first time and rendered the questions about its inability to advance in the postseason irrelevant. Those inquiries will instead focus on Utah as RSL faces up to a future that may require significant alterations to its core.
Most of the instant concerns will center on the Claret-and-Cobalt's inability to produce in front of goal in recent weeks. RSL finished seventh in the league in scoring during the regular season (and even set a club record for goals in the process), but it leaned too heavily on Álvaro Saborío to supply the final touch, mustered no consistent secondary routes to goal and played the final 512 minutes of its campaign without finding the back of the net. For a team with designs on winning a title, that sort of production simply isn't good enough when the stakes increase.
Addressing the concern may require more than cosmetic surgery for a side with little budget room available as presently constituted, but there are no easy answers for a side filled with proven players on decent wages. Hard choices await Jason Kreis and Garth Lagerwey this winter as they attempt to increase the depth stripped away over the years and tweak the core group enough to remain competitive at the top end of MLS over the next couple of years.
Seattle would have faced similarly difficult inquires had it crashed out at this stage yet again. Instead of lamenting an early exit, Sounders FC can thank another resolute defensive performance (ably backstopped by Michael Gspurning with a season-high nine saves and superbly marshaled by Jeff Parke) for reaching the final four. The attack did not match that contribution on this evening, but one tidy move from right to left and one super finish from Martinez betrayed the quality at Sigi Schmid's disposal ahead of the bumper tie against the Galaxy.
The next step in Seattle's long-awaited MLS Cup challenge will prove even more daunting. Los Angeles enters this series on Sunday with form and momentum on its side after an impressive 3-1 away win in San Jose on Wednesday night. The return of Mauro Rosales looms as potentially critical (Schmid suggested a potential second leg appearance for the integral schemer in his post-match comments) for a group that is far more potent than it has shown to date in this postseason. If Seattle cannot find its stride in the final third, then its stout rearguard may find the pressure simply too much to bear. Los Angeles has dominated this series historically by producing similar displays to the one Sounders FC produced in Utah, but Seattle can point to its pair of wins this season (admittedly, one came against a weakened Galaxy outfit) as a sign that the paradigm has shifted.
As Schmid and his players would suggest after dispatching RSL at the second time of asking, the power relationship between two sides evolves over time with repercussions certain to follow. The potential changing of the guard at Rio Tinto Stadium ensures Seattle will continue its MLS Cup quest while Real Salt Lake ponders its future. It is, as it always had to be, a snapshot designed to capture two clubs now following different paths as the offseason commences for one and the postseason continues for the other.
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