SEATTLE – There was a play early in Wednesday night’s Western Conference Semifinal second leg between Real Salt Lake and the Seattle Sounders that was a microcosm of how the night went. It looked like a chance for Seattle to grab an early goal in what they hoped would be an epic comeback, but instead it became a play symbolic of a makeshift RSL’s defense’s ability to bend, but not break on the night.
In the 10th minute, Seattle attacker Fredy Montero took the ball off an uncharacteristically sloppy Kyle Beckerman and started a numbers-up break. With Michael Fucito darting in from the right side and overlap options on the left, it was shaping up to be the type of moment that Seattle have regularly turned into goals.
But suddenly RSL’s Chris Schuler peeled off, read Montero’s intent and intercepted the pass that was meant to put Fucito in on goal.
“It’s gonna be [a different game] if they get that early goal there,” RSL head coach Jason Kreis said of the play Schuler made. “They put us under a lot of pressure in that first half.”
Seattle would, eventually, break through on the night – they won 2-0 – but they lost 3-2 on aggregate, in large part because Schuler and Chris Wingert, who’s usually a fullback, did the job filling in for regulars Jámison Olave and Nat Borchers.
It was a makeshift defense, and they endured a double-helping of pressure. That pressure came largely because RSL’s midfield was overrun or, in the second half, skipped entirely. The Sounders sent a steady diet of diagonal balls for their wingers to chase, daring Schuler and Wingert to pull themselves out of shape and leave gaps to exploit.
“What was happening was it wasn’t that easy to just follow and mark [Seattle’s forwards] because they would have other guys coming through – Roger Levesque especially from the right was coming up and playing almost like a center forward,” Wingert explained. “Once in a while you had [Erik] Friberg coming through, or [Lamar Neagle] on the other side, and at that point you’re trying to hold the line as best you can.”
The line was breeched twice – once when the Sounders got a penalty, and then minutes later when Seattle turned a poor clearance into a lightning-quick break for the 2-0 lead.
But that was all they’d get as RSL’s back line held firm over the last half hour. It wasn’t pretty stuff, but it ended up being effective – especially over the last 10 minutes, when sub Yordany Álvarez helped change RSL’s shape and cut out some of the more dangerous Seattle service.
And with that, the Claret-and-Cobalt advance to their third conference final in four years.
“We battled,” said RSL ‘keeper Nick Rimando. “It was one of those games we had to battle and stick in there to the end. We stuck in there, and we advance. It’s a loss, but it feels like a win for sure.”