No, Seattle, the playoffs aren’t different.
The Sounders FC talked for two weeks about having a different vibe in the postseason, prior performances becoming insignificant. But in a first-round matchup against seventh-seeded Real Salt Lake on Tuesday night, the result for second-seeded Seattle through regulation and extra time was the same as it’s been since early October — winless.
RSL upset the Sounders 6-5 on penalty kicks after a scoreless draw at Lumen Field to advance to the Western Conference semifinals. Real will travel to play third-seeded Sporting Kansas City on Sunday.
“This last game was an example of our season,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “We’re on top of the West, and then you see a decline the last six or seven games, which is like our PKs. … It’s really unfortunate. We have a real good team, and I think injuries got the best of us and we were lacking that final product.”
Sounders midfielder Kelyn Rowe swiped a right-footed shot at RSL keeper David Ochoa for Seattle’s sixth penalty-kick attempt and first miss. Real defender Justen Glad followed and calmly converted a right-footed shot to the bottom right corner. Sounders keeper Stefan Frei tipped the ball, but it bounced off the post and into the net for the game-winner.
“All of the PKs, I tried to go with instinct and wait them out as long as I could,” Ochoa said. “I noticed that on the first five PKs, they all shot to my right and I dived to my left, I was thinking that. But like I said, I like to go by instinct. I thought I waited him out pretty good, and it was a great feeling.”
Seattle ended the regular season on a six-match winless streak. The club last won Oct. 9 when it defeated Vancouver 4-1 at Lumen Field. Yet, the Sounders weren’t the same team that began the season on a MLS-record 13-match unbeaten streak.
Expected obstacles in injuries and international call-ups jumbled the lineup and on-field chemistry. The Sounders were still goal-dangerous, RSL opting to take their chances in defending the home side instead of scoring until a shootout.
Seattle outshot RSL 21-0 in the match. Real didn’t record their only corner kick until the 109th minute. The set piece was cleared with a powerful header by Roldan.
Ochoa had three saves, not counting the biggest in the shootout.
Seattle has advanced to MLS Cup in four of the previous five seasons. It had won 15 consecutive postseason matches at home. But even Tuesday’s loss before 34,012 at home was forewarned. The Sounders had the worst home record of all this season’s playoff teams at 8-4-5.
“I barely touched the ball all game,” said Frei, who earlier Tuesday was awarded the Save of the Year by MLS for a kick save against RSL in September, a game the Sounders lost. “A shootout is a shootout. We scouted their takers as a goalkeeping unit. We knew what they prefer for the most part and were able to guess a few right. Obviously with what happened there at the end is a game of inches. It sucks.”
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer started a new lineup with forward Jordan Morris making his first return to the starting XI since the MLS Cup loss in December 2020. Tuesday’s playoff match was his third game since tearing an ACL while on loan to Swansea City AFC in February.
Sounders striker Raul Ruidiaz didn’t get the nod. He has been managing a hamstring injury since September and was limited to about 60 minutes. Although Schmetzer played Morris longer than expected (104 minutes), the coach played Ruidiaz as a sub to ensure he’d be available for extra play.
Ruidiaz scored the shootout’s opening goal.
“It was pretty nice having Nico Lodeiro come on as a sub for Jordan,” Schmetzer said of the substitution. Lodeiro was limited due to two knee surgeries this season. “I thought Jordan was effective. … There’s a lot of emotions that go through the final moments of a game like this. You’re willing your team to find that one spark. That one moment of brilliance where they figure out a way how to score.”
Morris primarily played on the right side with Fredy Montero up top and Nico Benezet, a summer signee, on the left side to form Seattle’s attacking point for most of the opening half. With left back Brad Smith sending in crosses, the trio had a few looks at goal but couldn’t slip one past RSL’s defense.
Sounders All-Star defender Nouhou was out due to health and safety protocol, but veteran Shane O’Neill worked well with Xavier Arreaga and All-Star Yeimar Gomez Andrade to cut off RSL’s offense in the opening half. The visitors didn’t have a single shot. Frei plucked two of Real’s crosses out of midair.
Ruidiaz subbed in for Montero after halftime. Montero is the club’s all-time leading scorer with 68 goals, but none in MLS postseason play.
Ruidiaz has nine goals in 10 postseason appearances. His near-chance in the 73rd minute — a straight-leg kick from 20 yards out — hit the post.
In the 78th minute, Yeimar had a header off a Joao Paulo free kick saved by Ochoa.
Rowe, who appeared in every regular-season match for the Sounders, started in place of Alex Roldan at right wingback. Alex returned from a call-up for World Cup qualifying matches for El Salvador with a hip-flexor strain.
RSL played without Albert Rusnak. The midfielder announced before kickoff that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and didn’t travel for the postseason match in Seattle. The club captain was second in scoring for RSL with 11 goals and led the team in assists with 11.
“Our expectations of this club are high, so it’s a little bit of a surprise to end the year,” Schmetzer said.