Defense the difference as Sounders head to playoffs

TUKWILA, Wash. — If the old cliché that “defenses win championships” is true, the Seattle Sounders would seem to be well-positioned for this year’s playoffs.

A year after they led MLS in scoring, the Sounders made defense more of a focus in 2012. They now head into Friday’s Western Conference semifinal with Real Salt Lake having allowed 33 goals, the second-fewest in MLS during the regular season.

“It’s been great,” Sounders defender Jeff Parke said in assessing the team’s performance this year. “Maybe we didn’t get as many points as we did last year, but the group has been harder to break down and we’ve made it harder for teams to play against us. It’s a more mature and diverse group.”

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None of the additions to this year’s teams have been bigger than goalkeeper Michael Gspurning. The Austrian became the first player from outside the CONCACAF region to lead the league in goals against average. His mark of 0.73 was the third-lowest in the 17-year history of the league.

In games he started, the Sounders went 12-4-5 and posted nine shutouts. The Sounders never allowed more than two goals in any of Gspurning’s starts and only gave up more than one on two occasions.

One of the elements of Gspurning’s game that differentiates him from others around the league is the way he commands the area in front of the goal. While many goalkeepers are content to rely on their shot-stopping ability, Gspurning seems to prefer keeping those shots from ever happening. He’s constantly off his line grabbing crosses and punching balls out of harm’s way.

“He puts himself in good spots and when he needs to make big saves he does,” Sounders defender Marc Burch said. “He’s done a great job. The goals he’s let in haven’t been his fault. He’s a great goalie, he communicates well, organizes in the back and everybody fights for him as well as he fights for us. He knows we make the plays we can in front of him and when we don’t, he makes plays for us.”

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Of course, Gspurning is less concerned with his numbers than he is with his team’s performance.

“As long as we win, we’ll take anything,” he said. “If we win 7-6, I will say it’s no good, but it’s OK. As long as we win, everything is fine.”