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Sunday, 30 October 2011

MLS Weekly Review – Playoff Edition – Quarterfinals: Match One – Salt Lake v Seattle 1st Leg - Of Keller Keeps It Close, a Risk of Offside Followed by Some Back-Heeled Class, Ossie Going Off But Not Going Off, Key Injuries, & a Salt Lake Long Not Seen.

    Salt Lay-ake; come out and play-ay. The brash Seattle side entered the contest brimming with confidence, believing that despite missing the dynamic Mauro Rosales – still nursing that knee injury suffered in the final match of the season - they could bring their fine regular season form into a struggling opponent’s home ground.

    What they found however was a Salt Lake side nobody had seen in months; that confident, clinical, skillful, and tenacious side the one so entertaining to watch prior to a disappointing Champions’ League Final.

    It was a full-strength Salt Lake lineup not often seen this season. Javier Morales – returned from injury, Kyle Beckerman – from suspension, Will Johnson – from ankle injury suffered on international duty with Canada, while key depth players Ned Grabavoy and Tony Beltran both returned to training with Grabavoy making the subs bench.

    The midfield partnership, the yin and yang of Beckerman and Morales, were on the same pitch for the first time since that devastating displaced fracture of the Argentine’s ankle hampered the season back on May 7th. That extra impetus of finding a stride long thought lost showed early as Salt Lake signaled their intent in the eighth minute.

    A free kick from a dangerous area on the left-flank allowed Morales to send one of his trademark deliveries squarely onto the head of Álvaro Saborío. The Costa Rican-striker miscued his header wide of the near-post after getting in behind his marker for a free header.

    Attacking intent made clear, Robbie Russell then exhibited the physical play the slight Seattle team should expect. A ball on the touchline precipitated a battle with the diminutive Sammy Ochoa, which saw the hulking Salt Lake right-back steer his opponent into the sign boards.

    The pressure slowly ratcheted upwards as chances began to fall Salt Lake’s way. Were it not for some superb saves by Kasey Keller in goal, Seattle would have gone behind sooner, as the veteran dove quickly to his left to tip an Andy Williams rasper around the post after a delightful one-two with Saborío on the edge of the box.

    The ease with which Salt Lake sliced through Seattle proved fortuitous before the half. Morales cut in from the left-flank, surged towards goal, drawing the Seattle defenders along with him. Chris Wingert exploited that space with a clever overlapping run, which Morales recognized and duly fed with a weighted, straight, through-ball for him to run onto. The left-back sent a low, goalmouth cross towards the back-stick. Whether the initial effort was goal-bound is a matter for debate, but neither Keller, nor the diving Jhon Kennedy Hurtado was able to prevent it squeaking through for an onside Saborío to pounce.

    There was some debate as to whether the goal should be disallowed for offside, but despite Seattle’s desperate pleas it stood.

    Goals late in halves are always difficult to respond to, but Seattle almost did just that. In the final throes of stoppage time, Fredy Montero found himself in acres of space on the left and curled a picturesque delivery to the centre of the box onto the head of Álvaro Fernández. The Uruguayan rose highest, but misjudged his header, making a bad connection and sending his effort well wide. 

    That wasted chance to get back into the match was punished early in the second half.

    Minutes after Keller had made a superb double-save on Russell and Morales, and watched anxiously as Williams lashed the follow-up over the bar, a right-sided throw-in deep in Seattle’s half brought about another chance.

    Morales danced between several sluggish defenders to deliver a low cross to the near-post. Saborío again got across his marker; dragging his right-foot he hooked a stunning back-heel flick across the goal to the far-netting. Keller helplessly scrambled across, but the placement and pace of the ball were too precise to be stopped. 

    The goal was reminiscent of one scored by Luis Gil when the two sides met at Rio Tinto in Week Eleven, when the Seattle defenders switched off from a throw-in at the very same spot on the pitch allowing Gil to collect the ball, turn and fire a shot home.

    Frustration began to show on the faces of the Sounders and the night should have gotten worse. Both regular season meetings were marred by red cards – Salt Lake lost a man in each, while Seattle lost one in their home match – and this tasty affair could have been no different.

    Osvaldo Alonso, the tenacious defensive midfielder - who regularly plays on the edge - lashed out at the two-goal scorer when Saborío crossed his path, appearing to strike the attacker in the face or throat. The referee only saw it as a yellow card, sparing the Sounders what could have been a more devastating loss and a return leg without their midfield stopper.  

    The remainder of the evening looked set to fizzle out, as the dispirited Sounders continued to apply poor finishing to any of the measly few chances they created, while Salt Lake seemed content to ride out their win.

    There was one last sting in the eighty-eighth minute. A dangerous cross from Williams was only half-cleared by Brad Evans, falling to Grabavoy who had come on for Morales.

    Grabavoy fired a shot towards the frame, only to see it elude Keller and ricochet off the outstretched foot of the recovering Evans, into the unguarded goal.

    The night was not without its set-backs for Real, as both of their starting central defenders – Jámison Olave and Nat Borchers - left the match with injury – quadriceps and knee respectively.

    A brace for Saborío – could have sealed the hat-trick but fired over; two assists for Morales - the playmaker so missed all season - now finding his form, and a clean-sheet for goalkeeper Nick Rimando, whose goal was only threatened once by a Fernández-cross that worryingly dipped and struck the top of the bar.

    Seattle did not register a single shot on goal and have now only scored just once in the five playoff matches in franchise history, as their inability to perform in the postseason continues despite another excellent regular season campaign.

    The return leg goes next Wednesday (November 2nd) in front of a downtrodden, yet optimistic Seattle crowd; especially buoyed should Rosales be included in the starting eleven.

    Expect their numbers to be large, and their voices to be loud, but should Salt Lake score first, it could be the dagger that sucks the atmosphere out of the raucous CenturyLink Field faithful and confirm the contest over.

Salt Lake v Seattle 3-0.

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