By JASON MITCHELL
Turns out the fourth time is the charm.
Mario Martinez scored the biggest goal in Seattle Sounders’ history Thursday night, drilling an 81st-minute half-volley from distance past Nick Rimando into the far side of the net, lifting Seattle to a 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake.
The victory sends Seattle to the Western Conference final for the first time in team history after exiting in the first round for three straight years.
The Sounders visit the Los Angeles Galaxy at 9 p.m. Sunday in the first leg of the conference final. The return leg will be at CenturyLink Field in Seattle on Sunday, Nov. 18.
For 80 minutes in front of a boisterous crowd at sold-out Rio Tinto Stadium, it was looking like Real Salt Lake might bounce the Sounders from the playoffs for the second-straight season.
The scoreboard read 0-0, but Real Salt Lake was controlling possession, playing with urgency, and peppering Sounders’ goalkeeper Michael Gspurning.
As is so often the case, Real Salt Lake was able to dominate possession and the pace of the match with its short passing game through a midfield anchored by Kyle Beckerman in back and Javier Morales in front.
But time and again, that possession amounted to nothing, as gusty winds turned crosses into errant knuckleballs and Gspurning delivered nine huge—if not always pretty—saves.
Then Martinez, a promising Honduran midfielder picked up mid-season, changed everything, letting a beautiful, curling lobbed pass from Fredy Montero bounce once before unleashing a clinical one-touch strike that accomplished the near-miraculous: getting past Rimando.
Rimando, so brilliant in the first leg of the series, came up big again early in the second half with a diving save on a Brad Evans shot from the top of the penalty area.
But he was helpless against Martinez, who started for the injured Mauro Rosales.
Real Salt Lake pressed hard in the closing minutes and through the five minutes of stoppage time, but couldn’t come up with the equalizer. Late substitute Fabian Espindola skied an open look in the 85th minute, and Gspurning slapped away a Javier Morales header in the 90th minute.
For Real Salt Lake, it was a disappointing end to a successful season that saw that them land the second seed in the Western Conference and come away from the first leg of the series with a much-needed draw.
For the Sounders, it was the end of a drought that seemed to be getting inside their heads and the beginning of a new chapter in franchise history.