As the final whistle sounded on the Sounders FC’s 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake to send them through to the Western Conference Championship for the first time in four years in Major League Soccer, Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid wrapped his arms around his exuberant assistant coach Brian Schmetzer.
The emotion of three efforts in the playoffs that had come up empty spilled over in a single moment of jubilation as the Sounders slayed the demon that had haunted them in their first three seasons.
“Elation. Joy. Happiness,” Schmid said. “I’m really pleased for the team because it’s a big hurdle to overcome for them.”
The scenario was a familiar one for the Sounders, too. In 2009, they fought to a scoreless draw in the first leg of their series with the Houston Dynamo only to see a Brian Ching goal in overtime end their magical run in their inaugural season.
In 2010, they fell behind 1-0 at home against the LA Galaxy, then dropped the series 3-1. Last year, a 3-0 defeat in the first leg on the road against Real Salt Lake proved too tough a hill to climb as the Sounders pulled two goals back but couldn’t find the equalizer and ended their season in the Western Conference Semifinals yet again.
On Thursday, those demons were exorcised as they advanced on a majestic shot by Mario Martinez, putting Seattle up 1-0 while goalkeeper Michael Gspurning held off a last-minute flurry from Salt Lake to finish the night with a career-high nine saves.
The players had a quick response to the whistle too. Celebrating together, then turning to the northeast corner of the stadium to salute the Sounders FC supporters that traveled to Utah for the match.
“This feels amazing. Four years, we’ve been working to get this. I’m happy for my teammates. We did great today,” said midfielder Osvaldo Alonso who has played in all eight Sounders FC playoff matches.
Added midfielder Brad Evans, “It’s a monkey off the back. It’s pretty emotional. Guys poured their hearts out in the game and that’s what it’s going to take. We take what we did in these two games and we move on.”
The Sounders have no time to celebrate their success though. The Western Conference Championship starts on Sunday.
“We ran to the fans to say thanks for all the support through the years. But when we got back to the locker room we have another game to play and nothing is done yet,” said forward Fredy Montero. “We want to keep moving on to the final.”
They will move on to face the Galaxy, who finished fourth in the Western Conference in 2012 after winning the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup in 2011.
Now with a playoff series win under their belts, the Sounders will face Los Angeles with a newfound confidence in the two-leg series.
“We needed to get over this hump and winning this game is really important for our development as a team,” Schmid said. “The setbacks in year’s past have fueled this. Getting over this hurdle today will do oodles for our confidence and will really help us as we go on to the next series.”
Seattle Sounders FC Head Coach Sigi Schmid:
On the overall take on the game:
“Obviously it feels great to win the game. We knew that it was going to be a tough, hard game. We knew that they were going to come at us but I felt that we did a good job of not giving up too many big things on goal and not giving up too many clean chances. Rimando came up big on goal a couple of times right at the start of the second half to save that Brad Evans goal and then Mario Martinez finally got it to go in. I liked the way we battled. Everyone put everything forward.”
On the process of choosing Mario Martinez over Mauro Rosales for tonight’s game…
“Well Mauro is getting better. Even today he ran a little bit and did some work and was looking much better. I’m not sure if the first game against LA is going to come in time but for sure the second game. We felt that Mario was a player that close to 90 minutes of fitness based on the game that he played with Honduras and we felt that his passing could help us as well. His ability on set pieces is great and obviously he got a great goal as well.”
On the performance of Michael Gspurning…
“Gspurning played great. I have said before that I feel that he should be Keeper of the Year but some people have dismissed that by saying that he was injured for some of the season. I don’t know if you get injured you get excluded from awards. He has been a tremendous addition for our team; his height obviously makes it difficult for other teams on corners, but he is just a great keeper. Rimando is a great keeper but Gspurning is right there; you saw two of the best goalkeepers in the league tonight.”
On the indispensability of Brad Evans…
“You know, when Brad steps on the field you might not think to yourself that Brad is the smoothest guy or the best player, but what Brad is a warrior. What people don’t see from the outside is that he is one that is talking and organizing. At the start of the second half we had to make sure that one of our forwards was covering Beckerman and that was Brad who was doing that. He was getting chances on goal, he was blocking shots, he even had a dead leg at the end of the game. He is just a warrior.”