The Colorado Rapids and Seattle Sounders kicked off the second legs of their respective conference semifinals facing uphill battles as steep as the Rocky and Cascade mountains that loom outside their stadiums.
Colorado were missing seven players due to injury and one to suspension—and they were playing at Livestrong Sporting Park, where their opponents, Kansas City, had lost just twice in 17 games this year. The Rapids would need to overcome a 2-0 deficit in those conditions.
Seattle were returning to CenturyLink Field, where their home fans never fail to fire them up, but they were missing playmaker Mauro Rosales and they were down 3-0, thanks to the stunning result in the first leg at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Both games were played in heavy rain, too, as if the elements were weighing in on the underdogs’ prospects.
In the end, both teams came up short—but neither one went quietly.
In the run-up to the second leg, Seattle coach Sigi Schmid told reporters there was no way for his players to get “all three goals at once” as they attempted to dig themselves out of the 3-0 hole. Evidently, no one relayed the message to his team: Sounders FC began the game in full desperation mode.
There was an overexcited quality to the opening stages, with the ball pinging around—and bodies flying, too. RSL midfielder Andy Williams, Seattle striker Fredy Montero and Sounders midfielders Brad Evans and Álvaro Fernández all went down heavily in the first 10 minutes.
By the 21-minute mark, both Evans and Fernández had been substituted due to their injuries. It was reminiscent of Colorado’s first-leg woes versus Kansas City, and it was definitely not what Sigi Schmid, or the 36,021 fans on hand, had in mind for the first act.
But then again, RSL were without their starting centerbacks, Jámison Olave and Nat Borchers, and it was Fernández’s replacement, Lamar Neagle who ended up sparking Seattle.
After a scoreless first half in which Seattle didn’t allow a single shot on goal, won eight corners, and had a sure goal astoundingly headed off the line by RSL defender Tony Beltran, the home side finally broke through in the 56th minute.
Mike Fucito was wrestled down in the box by Beltran, and Osvaldo Alonso put away the ensuing penalty to establish Seattle’s lifeline.
Just seven minutes later, Montero latched onto a loose ball 22 yards out, found Neagle with a terrific pass, and watched as the 24-year-old winger calmly finished it into the low far corner to make it 3-2 on aggregate. Game on!
Seattle now had nearly half an hour to find the equalizer. Energized by his goal, Neagle popped up everywhere trying to get another one. He fired three shots in the next 10 minutes. Minutes later, Neagle swung in a promising cross, but no one could get on the end of it.
Seattle kept pouring on the pressure, and it seemed like only a matter of time before the third goal would come to send the series into extra time. But despite outshooting RSL 17-4, the Sounders never found that equalizer. They won the game 2-0, but lost the aggregate 3-2 and were bounced from the playoffs in the conference semifinals for the third consecutive season.
After the first leg, Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis had said that Ned Grabavoy's late third goal could end up being “largely important” for a second leg without Olave and Borchers. He proved exactly right.
The way they were throwing numbers forward, Seattle were vulnerable to the counter-attack, and sure enough, in the 79th minute, RSL striker Fabián Espíndola got behind the Seattle backline and came steaming in on goalkeeper Kasey Keller. But Keller made a fingertip reaction save to deny Espíndola and keep hope alive for the Sounders.
The miracle rally may not have worked out, but that play went according to the script, providing a lasting image to send Keller—who had announced his retirement, effective at the end of the season—out on a positive note of sorts.
Keller’s side fell on the aggregate, but the veteran of two US World Cup teams technically ended his career, appropriately enough, with a shutout.
SKC by TKO
At Livestrong Sporting Park, the rain sluiced down. But in the end, all that extra water didn’t help the Rapids.
Sporting Kansas City were in the driver’s seat after their 2-0 first-leg win at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park this past Sunday. And with the Rapids roster being held together by chewing gum and string, a berth in the conference final was well within SKC’s reach.
They mathematically could’ve gone through with a loss by one goal or a draw, but Sporting got a 28th-minute goal from Aurélien Collin and 76th minute strike from C.J. Sapong—both assisted by Graham Zusi—to lock up a 4-0 aggregate win.
The defending champs, meanwhile, played with pride, and even won the possession battle by 10 percentage points. But their makeshift lineup never looked truly threatening, and now they head into the offseason with a raft of injuries to heal, and coach Gary Smith’s future with the team uncertain.