By John Boyle Herald Writer
SEATTLE — It took only 30 minutes for Seattle Sounders FC to go from a team looking for an important late-season victory to a team trying to simply hang on.
Following a first-half red card to defender Zach Scott that left Seattle short-handed, Sounders FC was still hoping for a victory, but ultimately was happy to settle for a 0-0 draw with Western Conference rival Real Salt Lake Wednesday night in front of 38,356 at CenturyLink Field.
“That’s a very long time to play with 10 men, but we showed great character today,” said goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, who came up with several big saves to preserve Seattle’s third straight shutout. “At the end of the day, because we took the result, it’s good for us, because we have seen that the team has character. It’s a perfect moment right before the playoffs to have a moment like this, because we all know the playoffs can be something totally different. It was a good fight from us.”
Seattle came into the game hoping for a victory that would pull them even with second-place Salt Lake in the Western Conference standings. Sounders FC can still catch Salt Lake, however, because it has two games remaining while Salt Lake has just one.
And while Seattle came into the game with its sights set firmly on erasing Salt Lake’s advantage in the standings, things changed when Scott picked up his second yellow in the early going. Already Seattle was short-handed on its back line with center backs Patrick Ianni (calf) and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado (facial fracture) injured. Right back Adam Johansson, meanwhile, was traveling Wednesday from Europe where he was playing for Sweden in World Cup qualifying, and left back Leo Gonzalez was out with a hamstring injury.
Both teams were also minus their leading scorers with Seattle’s Eddie Johnson and Salt Lake’s Alvaro Saborio (Costa Rica) both having played Tuesday night in World Cup qualifiers. Salt Lake was also without Will Johnson, who played for Canada Tuesday night, while international duties left Seattle without Johansson and midfielder Mario Martinez (Honduras).
Once Scott was out of the game, midfielder Brad Evans, who was already out of position playing right back, moved to center back, and Michael Seamon, whose natural position is also midfield, subbed in for forward Sammy Ochoa and played right back.
“Proud of our team,” said Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid. “We had to play the game under very difficult circumstances and with the amount of players we are missing, and also playing a man down. I thought our team showed a lot of character, we battled, we created some counter-attacking chances. We knew we were going to give away some possession in the second half, but I thought our team held solid. Obviously Gspurning made a few big saves at the end of the game.”
Gspurning did indeed come up big late in the game to preserve the scoreless tie. RSL’s Tony Beltran nearly came up with the game winner for Salt Lake in the 83rd minute when he got through Seattle’s back line and was briefly free in the box, but Gspurning was able to come off his line and smother the ball after a sliding Evans got a piece of it.
Then it was Chris Schuler nearly winning it in stoppage time, but his left-footed shot was saved by a diving Gspurning. Sebastian Velasquez nearly put in a loose ball off the ensuing corner, but his low shot deflected off of Andy Rose and somehow rolled out for another corner after Gspurning just got a piece of it as it went through is legs.
As good as Gspurning was, he was quick to share the credit, pointing out his teammates’ ability to play solid defense while using an unusual lineup in the back.
“Amazing,” he said. “Mike Seamon on the right side was great, and it was a great effort of organization. We normally play with other guys in the back, but we saw today that we can trust every player.”
But as happy as Schmid was with the character his team showed, he was equally displeased with the effort of referee Ricardo Salazar. Salazar came into this game already an unpopular man after making a few controversial calls that played into Seattle’s loss in the U.S. Open Cup final. And while Schmid said he didn’t have a problem with Scott’s red card, he did wonder if there should have been a hand ball in the box called on Salt Lake at the end of the first half. Replays did indicate that Salazar got that one right.
Or if Schuler should have been given a red card in the 51st minute for his foul on Fredy Montero, who looked to be through with a one-on-one chance at goal if not for the foul. Schmid also believed Salazar let the game linger on too long in stoppage time, giving Salt Lake a final corner after the two minutes of added time had elapsed.
By the end of the night, Seattle fans were even more upset with Salazar than was Schmid, loudly chanting “Salazar sucks!” in the final minutes, then again after the final whistle.
“I don’t want any more questions about Salazar,” Schmid said when asked about the officiating. “But the thing is, our fans know his name. I don’t think many fans know the name of the referee. I think that’s an indication.
“I just thought we were hard done by the officiating all night in certain regards. … It just seems whenever there is something 50-50, obviously we don’t get the break with him.”
Seattle has already clinched a playoff spot, and while a win Wednesday would have been desirable, second place is still an attainable goal with two games remaining. And whoever Sounders FC ends up playing in the postseason, Schmid knows one person he doesn’t want to see.
“Lord help us if we get Salazar in the playoffs.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: email@example.com.