Mario Martinez, making his first MLS start, nailed a goal in the 81st minute to give Seattle a stunning 1-0 road win in the second leg of a Western Conference semifinal.
SANDY, Utah — With one magical strike, Sounders FC broke its playoff curse.
Midfielder Mario Martinez, making his first MLS start, hit a blistering left-footed volley in the 81st minute to give Seattle a stunning 1-0 road win against Real Salt Lake in the second leg of a Western Conference semifinal.
The Sounders won the two-game series by the same aggregate score, advancing out of the first round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
“Just a monkey off our back — I think everybody feels that way,” said midfielder Brad Evans. “It’s pretty emotional. Guys poured their heart out in the game, and that’s what it’s going to take.”
Seattle faces the defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy in the conference final starting Sunday at 6 p.m. at The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. The second leg will be Nov. 18 at 6 p.m. at CenturyLink Field.
“It just feels good winning,” said general manager Adrian Hanauer. “I’m just so happy for our fans, players, the coaches … everybody who puts energy in. A fantastic team effort and a moment of brilliance.”
The Sounders had gone 740 playoff minutes over four years before holding a series lead, and they got it with one of the goals of the year. A combination play from Eddie Johnson to Evans to Fredy Montero eventually saw the ball come out wide to Martinez on the left, where he lashed a jaw-dropping drive from a tight angle past goalkeeper Nick Rimando, who had been unbeatable in the series.
The goal was the first Seattle had scored against RSL this season and broke a 469-minute scoreless streak in the head-to-head series dating to last year’s playoffs.
“That was one of the most important (goals in my career),” Martinez, who has also scored in FIFA World Cup qualifying, said through an interpreter.
Schmid said the goal was “unbelievable, and that’s what it was going to take in this series.”
Added Evans: “It was ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. You see those once or twice a year — that’s it…. It came at a perfect time.”
Salt Lake, fueled by a raucous home crowd of 19,657 at Rio Tinto Stadium, pressed hard for an equalizer. Forward Fabian Espindola, a second-half sub, had a clean look in the 86th minute but hit a close-range shot over the goal.
RSL forward Alvaro Saborio, who led the team with 17 goals in the regular season, snapped a header on goal in the 90th minute, but Seattle goalkeeper Michael Gspurning just tipped the ball over the goal to secure his series shutout.
As the final whistle blew, Schmid hugged his staff in unbridled celebration.
“Elation. Joy. Happiness. Thrilled,” he said. “Really pleased for the team. Really happy for the team because it’s a big hurdle to overcome.”
Until Martinez’s goal, it looked like one would never get scored, and maybe a penalty-kick shootout would ultimately have to break the tie. Neither team had scored in their previous three meetings, including the series opener last week.
Rimando was a huge reason for that. The RSL goalkeeper had a stunning performance in the first leg and made perhaps his best save of the series in the 46th minute Thursday, stopping a blast by Evans from the top of the penalty box.
The first half had other near-misses, as well, including a 31st-minute free kick by Martinez that was denied by the cross bar, but the Sounders never got discouraged.
“I felt confident that it was going to be our time this time,” Schmid said.
• Tickets for Sounders FC’s home leg of the Western Conference final on Nov. 18 are on sale through the team website or by calling 800-745-3000.
• Seattle started its 32nd different lineup in 36 MLS games, regular season and playoffs. Mauro Rosales, who had a team-high 13 assists the past two seasons, was unable to play due to a hamstring-related injury and was replaced by Martinez.
• Gspurning has received his green card. He will no longer count as an international player on the roster (teams are allowed eight unless they trade within the league for another slot).
• Gspurning had a season-high nine saves. His previous high was five.
Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or firstname.lastname@example.org.