A heartbreak at Sounder Field, a heartbreak of a better sort. And a shame, a shame if you missed it and a shame it did not quite get its goal. The Sounders needed to score three times to make right, three times to scrub out a nasty stain from the game before, three times to honor Kasey Keller, three times for their own soul, and they could only find two.
It was a perfect Seattle night for the drama. The rain drove in from Tukwila in Mayflower vans and nothing looked anything like Salt Lake City. Real Salt Lake had pounded the Sounders 3-0 the Saturday before in this two-game-aggregate playoff scheme, pounded and even mocked them with speed and experience and taunt. Morales was back for Real, Rosales was out for Seattle, and that alone was difference enough. But the beating was true and no one gets out of such a hole, not against a humorless, cold team like Real.
That win had cost Real their two best defenders, the horse renderers Olave and Borchers, but it did not seem to matter. It did not even seem to matter if anyone went to the second game. The Sounders had set their own lousy table. It would have been one thing to come home down 1-0 or worst case 2-0 but 3-0 was absurd. It would be Keller's last game, last game ever and a lousy way to go, especially from a team that had finished second in the league, a team that was 30 percent better than last year's.
It was when the rain came, about 4 that afternoon; it got dark and wet and shrouded and I thought, you know, this just might work. Real wants to get this over with but this is not Up with People weather, this is climate home cooking. Even one of the guards on the field, drenched before the game started or the players had come out, was smiling, and he does not even get to watch the game: his job is watching the stands for terrorists. If there was to be a chance, this was the set for it. As I told a tentative couple who had tickets and were headed to the game on the subway but had not much hope, you only need one goal to break the spell.
It took a while but, sure enough, one goal broke both the spell and the curse and the stain and should have broken Real Salt Lake. The game started as a disaster — in the first 12 minutes, there were four yellow cards and 11 mock tragic injuries splayed out on the wet field. Real was going to waste so much time that there was never going to be a game. The referee was over-matched by the operatic deceit, and for a moment it seemed it would take all night and never look like anything but wet trash.
But by the 20th minute, it was on, even too settled, which favored Salt Lake. Then, two injuries for Seattle, Evans and Fernandez — two injuries out of the This is for Real account, two very important players, injuries so severe neither player would have played again in any game in 2011. But worse, it was early in the game, and later, the Sounders would miss the chance to bring on fresh legs.
For they had decided, or realized or concocted the notion to bet the farm, every last one of them, bet the candlesticks and the tractor, bet the pond and the pig and the Chevy, throw all of it at Salt Lake, every shovel and bucket and apple pruner and see what happens. At first, they were sort of orderly about it but they blew past orderly and past Salt Lake. It was the American football version of putting everyone on the line and rushing so hard, the other team can hardly even go forward and the field starts to tilt downhill. It is a frenzy, not a considered matter, and Salt Lake wondered deep in its heart if the doors would hold.
And for the first half, they did. The Sounders had a record 10 corner chances in the first half, a record for regular season and playoffs. Real still lobbed in the occasional lying dead on the field foray but even that seemed tidal-waved. Fredy Montero had two fine chances in that half — one early, that he shanked just right, seemingly still hurt from a tackle moments earlier, and one just before the half, one that would have been a sweet honor, one that he will want back forever. He was loose, directly in front of the very brave keeper Rimando, and it was the coldest dagger of all to end the half, and he shot high. Every great player must miss that shot once, to never miss it again.
No one knew just what to think at the half. It had seemed an impossible task unless the Sounders somehow scored one goal early but they had missed that cutoff. What hope, three goals in one half, just to get even. And the rain bore in. When you bet the farm, you keep nothing in reserve. Should Salt Lake counter and somehow score, half the stands would have emptied, at least of blood.
No one left. The field only got more downhill and the Sounders swapped everything out for hell-bent. Salt Lake knew, this was getting worse yet, and in the 56th minute, Mike Fucito, who loves games like this, got himself wrapped around two defenders like a buoy in the seaweed and the referee Marrufo ran to point to the penalty kick mark. And the joint went wild.
Alonso took the penalty kick. Maybe it was set up that way or maybe he insisted. It was Alonso who seemed not right in that first loss in Salt Lake, Alonso who had carried so much of the season only to come short. He was not going to miss. Rimando nearly guessed right but Alonso's shot was so violent, it blew into the net. And broke the spell.
Five minutes later, the madness went wild. The ball pinballed into the two Sounders in front of Rimando, Fredy Montero headed it back to the left and Lamar Neagle blew another shot by Rimando, this time to the right and now it was 2-0 and 3-2 aggregate and there were 30 minutes left to score one goal to tie or two to get out of here. Had they tied, they would have won. Salt Lake was broken and even when Espindola had an open one-on-one shot on Keller, Keller had blocked it wide. Real had spent too much time being a jerk and too much time dissembling and too much time defending and they had no form left.
The Sounders could have used two subs right then but they were spent on injury. They went the final 30 mintues pounding at the Real goal, finishing with 26 shots to 4 for Real. And by the last minutes, with every player of both teams spent, it was a stunning barrage. And a heartbreak.
Done, done then for this year, the best Sounder team by a long shot. Perhaps they could not resist in Salt Lake the notion that you could play a game with some reserve. But they are too young for that caution. Their best form is full blast. A thanks to Mr. Keller, who gave them the time to get there.