Even in soccer, where goals and are distributed with frequency nearly equal to Willy Wonka’s Golden Tickets, four consecutive shutouts in a row is a highly respectable stretch of defense.
But that can’t be said definitively, because a season-high gathering of 39,312 at the Clink Saturday night did not get to witness four. Zeroes stopped at three and a half. So did the Sounders’ five-game winning streak.
Real Salt Lake, the outfit that ended the Sounders’ stellar 2011 season in playoffs, put a dent in the 2012 season with a 1-0 win that made a fairly stout statement that they are best in the MLS West for now. The three points bumped the Utahns to 8-3-2 and 26 points. The Sounders (7-2-1) had their second 1-0 loss at home, the other to San Jose (7-2-1), which plays Sunday.
Such was the RSL defense that it didn’t have to record a single save against a Sounders’ attack that flagged noticeably in the second half. It was the Sounders’ fifth game in 15 days, and the toll caught up.
“We showed some fatigue in the second half,” said striker Eddie Johnson. “I didn’t have the energy to get to some crosses.”
Apparently the RSL plan was to apply some bone to the Sounders whenever the opportunity presented. It seemed to work. The sluggish Sounders appeared to have small kitchen appliances dragging behind them.
“Their back four is big and very physical,” Johnson said. “They had a plan and stuck with it.”
Coach Sigi Schmid offered up the lament about fatigue too.
“Five games (in 15 days) is a little bit of a haul, but at the end its not an excuse,” he said. “I didnt think we were as good in the second half. I thought (RSL) did a good job of taking a little bit of the air out of the (game), slowing down our attack. I think maybe fatigue affected us because our movement up front wasnt as active as it was in the first half. We had enough chances in the first half that we needed to get a goal.
“I think a tie would have been a fair result tonight, probably, because they maybe had a little bit more in terms of possession in the second half. Overall, I cant fault our guys for what theyve done over the last five games.”
Given the schedule, injuries and the number of new players, the Sounders were due for a sag. They’ve used nine different lineups and started 21 players. Saturday they played without two starting defenders, Zach Scott (one-game suspension for a dangerous tackle), Patrick Ianni (back spasms).
It was their replacements, Adam Johansson and Jeff Parke, who were victimized for the goal.
After a scoreless first half, RSL’s veteran striker and leading scorer, Fabian Espindola, blew past the tandem in the 51st minute and blistered a left-footed 15-yarder so hard that rookie goalie Bryan Meredith barely had time to flinch as the shot whistled past him toward the near post. It was the first run-of-play goal since the San Jose loss March 31.
“I think we lost the ball a little softly in midfield on that,” Schmid said. “We had some people open and the decision as to where to play the ball was not a good one. We had a couple of turnovers those three or four minutes from the 48th to the 52nd minute we had some turnovers — that we shouldnt have had.
“That put us on our back foot and then the ball skipped through.”
After six clean sheets in the first nine games, a scoreless streak of 326 minutes came to an end, and so did whatever emotional edge the Sounders had. Schmid subbed in veteran Alvaro Fernandez and youngsters Alex Caskey and Cordell Cato, to no avail.
The Sounders mustered only eight attempts on goal, only one needing blocking. One of the best chances came in the 72nd minute, when Fernandez maneuvered past three defenders and was about eight feet from the far post when an RSL tackle knocked the ball away and Fernandez down.
In the 15th minute, Johnson, in a bit of masterful ballhandling, managed to keep possession between two defenders for perhaps 35 yards before launching a shot that soared over the crossbar and 20 rows up into the stands.
As offense goes, the Sounders’ gunpowder was damp.
RSL has 10 players in their fifth or sixth seasons, the longest tenured core in MLS history, and the experience showed. This was the same crew that stunned the Sounders with a 3-0 win in November, in the Seattle leg of the two-game aggregate that RSL won 3-2 to advance in the playoffs.
“Theyre an experienced team and theyre one of the better teams,” Schmid said, and so are we. When the top teams meet theres sometimes not a lot that separates the two.
But one-third of the way though the MLS season, there isn’t much doubt who has an edge.