As the MLS season moves ever closer to the playoffs, the one thing that the Seattle Sounders did not want to endure was a loss in their match with red-hot Real Salt Lake Thursday night.
Kasey Keller, the Sounders' team captain and most veteran player at 40, proved once more why he has become one of the enduring players of American soccer with an impressive resume of international professional activity along with spots on the American National Team.
In a tightly locked defensive struggle where goals are at a premium, the surest route to victory often lies in making good on a penalty kick. The odds are squarely in favor of the offensive side and a defending goalkeeper is compelled to initially guess right and then make a quick move to thwart a booming kick at close range.
Veteran goalie Keller was the man for such a job, as he snuffed out Real Salt Lake’s golden opportunity and enabled the Sounders, who now stand at 9-9-6, to avoid the loss and garner a point.
Keller stopped a penalty kick in the 32nd minute by Robbie Findley, who had been tripped by Seattle defender Jeff Parke in the left side of the box. Referee Paul Ward immediately pointed to the spot. It was the fourth PK Keller has faced this year, and the second in the last three games, but was his first stop.
"I mean, penalty saves are penalty saves,” Keller said. “You just hope you go the right way. It was great to be able to come up with that save at that time. You hope he puts it somewhere where you can save it, and today, [Findley] did that, which was nice."
The save provided the dramatic high point of the night for the Sounders' faithful at the Xbox Pitch of Qwest Field, where 36,078 were in attendance on Thursday. The home crowd were so inspired by Keller’s save that they began to loudly chant his name, later evoking a response from the veteran goalkeeper.
"There's going to be far more years when they don't chant my name so it's nice when they do,” a gratified Keller exclaimed. “The most important thing was getting away with this game. It was one of those games where they came here to get at least one point and if they got something more then they were very happy about that.
“I thought the first 10 or 15 minutes we were tremendous and then we kind of didn't quite play as well after that. But some guys really stepped up. Ossie [Osvaldo Alonso] continued to play great. Zach Scott came in for James [Riley] and did a tremendous job. We are doing okay.
“We are frustrated. Sure. We want to win every time we step on this field. But people have to understand that teams are going to come here and really make it difficult for us because they respect what we have done here and what this crowd is like. Like I said, we could've gotten a little more today but it's definitely not the end of the world."
Real Salt Lake came into Seattle on a roll and remain there by emerging with a tie and one point in a challenging road environment. Last year’s MLS Cup titlist now boasts an impressive 12-4-8 mark and 44 points. The tie moved the Utah team into a tie for first place in the West, level with the L.A. Galaxy and the Columbus Crew in the Supporters' Shield race.
The goalkeeper position was one of the high points of the night for the visitors as well. Kyle Reynish, who had played but one game for Real Salt Lake, stepped in for Nick Rimando on Thursday. Rimando, who helped Salt Lake win the MLS Cup at Qwest Field last November, tweaked his Achilles' tendon during practice on Wednesday. He was held out as a precautionary measure by coach Jason Kreis. Reynish made two saves.
With the Thursday night clean sheet, Salt Lake recorded its fourth straight shutout. It has not allowed a goal in 452 minutes.
"I have a ton of respect for Nicky (Rimando),” Reynish said. “He's one of the top keepers in the league. But the guys (in front of me) were great tonight compared to the Philadelphia game a few weeks ago. It was much less for me to do."
Seattle moved back into sole possession of fifth place in the Western Conference and into seventh place in the overall playoff picture, one point ahead of San Jose. But Sounders Coach Sigi Schmid didn't like having to settle for just the one point at home.
With Seattle chasing points late in the campaign and playing an important match at home, Schmid understandably wanted the three points a victory would have provided. He has set a figure of 45 points as the amount that would ensure his team postseason activity.
Schmid addressed the match’s result and where his team fell short on goal productivity:
"I think we battled and we fought, but I don't think we played great soccer tonight. So it was a little disappointing in that regard because I know we have more in us," Schmid said. "For whatever reason, all of our passing was disjointed, and we didn't click in that regard.”
As for goalkeeper Reynish’s play, Schmid said, "With any keeper, you just have to put shots on goal. Reynish did well, but I don't think we put enough things on goal to really test him often enough. Ossie [Alonso] did a couple of times on some shots, but there was nothing clean that I felt really put him under pressure. He did well. And we find out about that when the lineups are exchanged so when we put the lineups for the guys, they knew then."
Schmid was delighted with Keller’s performance, stating, “Kasey Keller made a great save on the penalty [kick].”
Seattle held the advantage on the evening in shots at 10-7. Much of it came from a 6-2 edge on corner kicks. The teams were even 2-2 on goal. Sounders FC also suffered 15 fouls.
The draw could have been predicted by the teams’ first meeting in Real Salt Lake’s home opener April 10; That match ended in a 2-2 deadlock.
On a positive note for the Sounders, Thursday’s match was the 29th consecutive sellout of MLS matches with the attendance of 36,078.
The deadlock enabled Real Salt Lake to continue an impressive current run, extending their unbeaten streak to seven games at 3-0-4. Salt Lake is 11-1-7 in their last 19 matches. The only loss during that stretch was a 2-0 decision at FC Dallas on July 17. This marked the 10th shutout in those 19 games.
Seattle Sounders FC now go into road play overdrive. Their next four matches span three nations over 12 days, beginning with a CONCACAF Champions League contest against Costa Rica's CD Saprissa on September 14. The Sounders then return to MLS play September 19 at Columbus.