By JASON MITCHELL
SEATTLE, Wash. – Bruised. Battered. Bloodied.
Take a pick. They all fit Nick Rimando like one of his own blood-smeared gloves after the stunning performance he delivered for Real Salt Lake in its 0-0 tie with the Seattle Sounders Friday night.
Three spectacular diving saves kept the bombarding Sounders scoreless, earning Real Salt Lake the draw it needed in the first leg of this Western Conference semifinals match.
“I think it has to go down as one of the single best individual performances by any player that’s ever worn an RSL jersey,” said RSL head coach Jason Kreis.
Seattle pressed all night against a Real Salt Lake side generally content to take a scoreless tie into Thursday’s match at Rio Tinto Stadium. Despite spending much of the game in the attacking third and unleashing 20 crosses in the second-half alone, the Sounders struggled to finish and ran into a spring-loaded Rimando when they did.
Rimando made remarkable back-to-back diving saves on Seattle headers shortly after the half-hour mark, denying Sammy Ochoa and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado in turn.
Impressive, but the 13-year veteran wasn’t done.
Minutes into the second half, Seattle’s midseason acquisition Christian Tiffert snapped a bouncing short-range header toward the right post that seemed a sure goal.
Not against Rimando. Not on this night. Another dive. Another save. Another deflating moment for the nearly 35,000 in attendance begging for a chance to explode.
Rimando’s heroics aside, his second-seeded team might not have escaped with the draw if the Sounders hadn’t butchered a few golden opportunities.
Barely five minutes after the break, Brad Evans found Ochoa alone at the top of Rimando’s box, only to watch his forward launch a shot yards over the crossbar into the Seattle night.
In the 85th minute, Fredy Montero flicked a beautiful header into the box to late substitute David Estrada, but when the UCLA product went to volley he came up with nothing but air, whiffing entirely as the ball sailed past him and out of bounds, a missed opportunity on an evening full of them.
It was a moment that surely had many in the crowd thinking wistfully of Eddie Johnson—out for at least this match with a strained adductor—and his 14 goals.
Rimando’s night almost came to an end in the 67th minute, when a vicious collision with Tiffert left the RSL goalkeeper with a broken nose and a cut by his right eye that required post-match stitches.
“I took a hit,” said Rimando as he stood above those bloody gloves in the RSL locker room, “but I feel OK. Focused. Eyesight’s fine, and I’m ready to get back home and handle business on Thursday.”
Real Salt Lake also received excellent performances from a defensive unit that featured Kwame Watson-Siriboe starting at centerback for the injured Jamison Olave and Chris Schuler.
“I thought he played fantastic,” Kreis said of Watson-Siriboe.
“Big players step in big games,” added Rimando, “and everybody stepped up tonight. It wasn’t just me. I did my part for sure, but so did everybody else. I’m not getting that zero without those guys.”
For the Sounders, it was a frustrating night offensively, something their fans have seen before—in the playoffs in general and against this team in particular.
Despite reaching the playoffs in each of its first four seasons, Seattle has yet to win a playoff round and has yet to score in the first leg of a series. And despite ranking fifth in the league in scoring in 2012, the Sounders have now been shut out by RSL in all four matches this season.
Sounders coach Sigi Schmid didn’t sound too worried after the match.
“We’ve been a pretty good goal-scoring team over the last two years,” Schmid said, “and we just need to know that it’s a mutually exclusive event. The next game is mutually exclusive from this game and [the fact that] we didn’t get a goal this game means nothing for the next game. We could pop free for two or three.”
Nor was Schmid in the mood to psychoanalyze the match or the Sounders’ scoring troubles.
“We can sit here,” Schmid said, “and we can lament about it, and we can cry about it. We can say, ‘Oh, jeez, that was terrible. Wow. Oh my God. What are we going to do? Oh, woe is me. The sky is falling. Are we going to be able to cross the road and not get hit by a car?’ We can talk about all these things right now, but at the end of the day we’ve got to get ready for a game on Thursday. And we have to build on what was good, and what was good is that we created chances. What was good is we kept them pretty much at bay for the majority of the game, and what was good is I thought we worked very hard.”
While the Sounders can’t seem to score against RSL, it might not take much scoring to win this series. The teams have now combined to score just a single goal in four matches this season.
“We’re stingy with our defenses—both our teams,” said Rimando. “It might just take one goal to go through to the next series, and hopefully that’s us.”
Here are the match highlights: