By JOSÉ M. ROMERO
Much was made of Real Salt Lake's regular season-ending six-match winless streak and how it might be a sign that RSL is in trouble heading into the playoffs.
On Saturday night, Real Salt Lake put that notion to rest in emphatic fashion.
The attacking combination of Alvaro Saborio, Fabian Espindola and Javier Morales served notice that RSL has the potential to make a 2009-like run through the MLS playoffs, as the trio led the team to a blowout 3-0 victory over the Seattle Sounders in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday night at Rio Tinto Stadium in Utah.
For Real Salt Lake, victory had to be sweet against the higher-seeded Sounders after ending the regular season without a win in its final six matches. With Saborio's two goals and a third one late from Ned Grabavoy, RSL heads to the Pacific Northwest for the second leg with an overwhelming advantage in aggregate goals, meaning the Sounders will have to be on the attack from the start of that game in order to stay alive.
Saborio opened the scoring in the 41st minute when he tapped home a Chris Wingert cross. The Sounders screamed at the officials for an offside call, but replays showed that, while a close call, the goal call was correct.
The second and third RSL goals left no room for debate. Saborio scored what could end up being the niftiest goal of the playoffs with a back-heel touch with his right foot that defender Jeff Parke and goalkeeper Kasey Keller could do nothing about.
The ball found the net far post in the 53rd minute. What followed soon after could have completely wrecked the Sounders' chances, not that they're good at this point anyway.
Midfielder Osvaldo Alonso went after an RSL player with hands to the face and got only a yellow card for the infraction. A red card in that siutation — and without several monster saves from Keller over the course of the match — and the Sounders could have been in even deeper a hole.
With Espindola attacking, Morales creating chances and Saborio the finisher, RSL's defense could have been lost in the accolades. But the four-man crew, which lost center back Jamison Olave in the first half due to injury, was as stalwart as any has been against the Sounders this season. Shot after shot never even made it to goalkeeper Nick Rimando, as defenders blocked them first.
In the 79th minute, Grabavoy entered the game for Morales. In the 88th minute, Grabavoy took advantage of a failed clearance and drilled a shot from Keller's left that took a deflection and went into the net.
When the final whistles blew, the Sounders were left to ponder a few things. They truly missed the playmaking ability of midfielder Mauro Rosales, who missed the match with a knee injury and can only hope to be available for the second leg Wednesday night.
Secondly, Real Salt Lake took the fight to the Sounders, who have a history of unraveling in playoff games when being out-physicaled (see the Houston series in 2009). That appeared to be the case again Saturday, and when things got rough and goals were allowed, the Sounders seemed to lose their composure out of frustration.
Third, a 3-0 deficit is not only a physical challenge to overcome, but a mental one as well, and the Sounders have to battle their thoughts of elimination even before the next leg kicks off.