The end came as a complete shock -- a dagger in the night.
Real Salt Lake’s season is over. The mortal wound came at the hands of the Seattle Sounders at Rio Tinto on Nov. 8 during the second leg of the western conference semi-finals in Major League Soccer.
The scene was set beautifully, both teams tied nil-nil on aggregate coming into the final game of the semi-finals. The winner would meet the Los Angeles Galaxy in the western conference finals. So, when the hopeful Real supporters shuffled into their seats on a cold, windy evening, there was a certain kind of electricity buzzing about in the air. Fireworks were even shot off before the real show began.
This was the playoffs. And for the vast majority of the game, RSL played like it.
Their first chance came in the 10th minute, when Real forward Alvaro Saborio passed a ball to midfielder Ned Grabavoy, who was inside Seattle’s box. Grabavoy shot it in, only for Sounders goalkeeper Michael Gspurning to dive on it immediately.
The visitors responded to Real’s opportunity with a chance of their own in the 18th minute. Seattle midfielder Christian Tiffert sent one just a touch wide of RSL’s goal. Tiffert was also the recipient of a questionable foul call. He sent the ball straight at goal, and RSL keeper Nick Rimando, the hero of the first leg in Seattle, bashed it out of harm’s way. Rimando would also bat away a corner only two minutes later.
A foul on the other side of the pitch, right on the edge of the box, would give Real their own chance in the 40th minute. Midfielder Javier Morales shot the ball straight at goal. It smacked into Gspurning’s chest. But in the 41st minute, Saborio was tripped up in the box and no penalty was given. It seemed as if all of Salt Lake City were booing at once.
Real’s furious attack did not let up during the second half, either. And although the Sounders had much fewer chances, they were quite frightening ones. In the 47th, Seattle forward Fredy Montero sliced a ball toward the net. If it hadn’t been for a Rimando falling save, it would have gone in.
Real Salt Lake’s manager Jason Kreis knew the situation was getting tense, so he went to one of his big guns. In the 58th minute, he subbed in forward Fabian Espindola. The crowd went wild. Espindola would strike in the 68th minute, when he got under a ball and nearly squeaked behind Gspurning, but to no avail.
The minutes ticked by. Another no call in the box in the 75th minute. More boos. Two Saborio shots in the 76th and 78th minutes both came up blank.
It was a sad, familiar story: so many chances but no goals. And then the hammer fell. Sounders midfielder Mario Martinez let a left-footed shot fly in the 81st minute. The ball screamed into the back of the net. 1-0 Sounders.
The fat lady had sung.
Real’s last gasps were not enough. They had been defeated. And in a season where this kind of performance repeated itself game after painful game, it was only a matter of time. If only there had been more performances like Rimando’s in the first leg. But now, the off-season has come, and with it the breakup of much of the team’s aging, high-priced talent. Who knows what next season will bring?
Real fans have only one choice. Wait with bated breath until the 2013 campaign, when they can lift their scarves and their hopes up once again and shout "believe!" at the top of their lungs.