By Don Ruiz The News Tribune
Any frustration the Seattle Sounders may feel about opening their playoff series with a scoreless draw against Real Salt Lake is accompanied by this consolation: They’re not trailing.
RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando’s five-save shutout performance got most of the attention Friday, but on the scoreboard he was matched with a four-save shutout performance by Seattle’s Michael Gspurning.
And while Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis praised Rimando for giving one of the best performances in club history, there is a superlative attached to Gspurning as well: best statistical goalkeeping season in Sounders FC history.
That’s saying something, because for their first three seasons the Sounders featured Kasey Keller, who opened his MLS career with the longest shutout streak ever to start a season and ended it with the 2011 goalkeeper of the year award.
For all that, Gspurning’s 2012 regular season set club records for goals-against average, winning percentage, shutout percentage and saves percentage.
“I think Kasey played very well for us, and I think Michael has come in and played very well,” coach Sigi Schmid said. “He was also behind a little bit of a more experienced defense than Kasey got to play behind. Kasey was part of us trying to create a defense, and I remember that first year when we came in and said, ‘Wait a minute, we better find some center backs.’ And all of a sudden we made a trade for Tyrone Marshall and Patrick Ianni and acquired Jhon Kennedy Hurtado in the span of three weeks and had to build a defense from there.”
Like Schmid, Keller believes goalkeepers can’t be fairly judged by statistics. But also like Schmid, he is impressed with his successor.
“Michael came in and has done a very good job,” Keller said. “He did what he said he was going to do: He said he would come in and be Michael Gspurning. That was, I think, the most important thing.”
While Schmid isn’t interested in saying whether Gspurning had the best goalkeeping season in Sounders history, he was happy to volunteer that Gspurning had the best 2012 season in Major League Soccer.
“Michael’s been everything we’ve hoped for and everything we expected of him,” Schmid said. “For me right now, he’s the goalkeeper of the year in this league. I think he’s the goalkeeper that’s been the most consistent. We had one bad stretch: that was the stretch where he was injured.”
The club’s ability to lose the 2011 keeper of the year to retirement, and immediately replace him with a 2012 keeper of the year contender was the result of front office planning, general manager Adrian Hanauer said.
The Sounders knew 2011 would be Keller’s final season. So they had time to formulate that it would take someone with the right mix of skill, confidence and maturity to follow Keller, a local legend from Olympia who was not only an MLS star but one of the great keepers this country has produced.
The club found it in Gspurning, a 31-year-old with a decade of professional experience in Europe and with three caps for the Austrian national team.
Hanauer credits Schmid, technical director Chris Henderson and goalkeeper coach Tom Dutra for recognizing the right ingredients in a 6-foot-5 keeper playing in Super League Greece.
“And then huge credit to Michael himself, who I think handled the transition as effectively and gracefully as possible by early on saying ‘I’m not going to be Kasey Keller, I’m going to be Michael Gspurning, and I’m going to work … to earn the respect of my teammates and my fans,’” Hanauer said. “And I think he’s done that.”
Gspurning may need to be at his best again Thursday, when the Sounders conclude their aggregate-score series at Real Salt Lake. The winner advances to the Western Conference finals, while the loser’s season ends.
“Of course we are thinking, ‘Why didn’t we score or why didn’t we win (the first game),’” Gspurning said. “… But don’t write us off. We are a game away team, too; so it will be a fun game.”