SANDY, Utah – Seattle's first goal against Real Salt Lake this season was a big one: It put them in the Western Conference finals.
Mario Roberto Martinez ended a season-long scoring drought for the Sounders against Real Salt Lake when he found the net in the 81st minute, helping Seattle advance with a 1-0 victory Thursday night after the teams played to a scoreless tie in the first leg of their series.
The third-seeded Sounders scored for the first time in five games against Real Salt Lake, including the opener of this semifinal Nov. 2 in Seattle. With a 1-0 aggregate victory, the Sounders earned a trip to the conference finals against the defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy. The Galaxy defeated the San Jose Earthquakes.
"We were thinking we could score a goal," Seattle forward Fredy Montero said. "Through this week, all we needed to do is score one goal. The goal was in the 80-something minute, but we're happy with that. We score one goal and we win."
Montero set the decisive scoring play in motion when he swung a cross out to Martinez on the left side of the box. The pass drew Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando toward the left post. Martinez fired at the opposite post and buried the ball in the right corner.
Second-seeded Salt Lake became the third higher seed to be knocked out of the MLS Cup playoffs. The Sounders had been winless in three games against RSL during the regular season after failing to score in any of them.
None of that mattered Thursday. With RSL struggling on offense at the end of the season, the Sounders felt confident they could come through.
"We've come in here and won before, so we were confident we could do it again," Seattle coach Sigi Schmid said. "We've been playing good defense. We've haven't been giving up many goals and that's important from our perspective. We knew we could get a goal at the end of the day eventually."
Salt Lake attacked vigorously in the early minutes of the first half. It nearly paid off in the 10th minute when Ned Grabavoy shook off a defender in pursuit and fired a running left-footer down the left side of the box. Sounders keeper Michael Gspurning snagged the ball to deny Grabavoy.
Salt Lake also had a chance to put in a free kick in the 40th minute. Javier Morales put the ball on goal, but Gspurning snatched it out of the air in the center of the box to keep the game scoreless.
"I've said all along that he deserves to be goalkeeper of the year," Schmid said of Gspurning. "A lot of people think he doesn't because of the fact he missed a series of games. I don't know if you get excluded from awards because you got injured for a few games. He has been a tremendous addition for our team."
Seattle had the advantage of playing with the wind at their backs in the first half. The Sounders moved the ball quickly down field several times and set several corner kicks. Nothing much came from that effort.
Rimando kept Seattle off the board with a brilliant save in the 31st minute. Martinez launched a left-footer from outside the box on a free kick. Rimando sprang up and batted away the ball into the crossbar to force a corner kick. The Sounders could not get another look at the net from the corner.
Rimando came up with another huge save in the 46th minute. Christian Tiffert found Brad Evans on a cross and Evans tried to sneak a left footer past Rimando along the right post. He dived for the ball and denied Seattle yet again.
Salt Lake gave the Sounders a scare in the 62nd minute when Morales served up another long ball. Morales fired off a right-footer from more than 40 yards away. It nearly skipped into the goal before Gspurning came up with the last-minute save.
The inability to finish off yet another scoring chance ultimately derailed RSL's hopes of playing for another MLS Cup.
"Everybody believed that we would get a goal one way or another," Salt Lake midfielder Will Johnson said. "This team has scored a lot of goals over the years. It seems bizarre that all of a sudden we couldn't find the back of the net."
The goal for RSL going into 2013 is figuring out how to improve its offensive potency.
"We have to score," Morales said. "The last few matches we didn't score a goal and it's tough to advance playing like that."
Seattle might have extra motivation against Los Angeles when the teams meet on Sunday. The Galaxy made a mistake in a press release after winning on Wednesday by mentioning they would meet Salt Lake in the Western Conference final.
That didn't sit well in the Sounders locker room.
"L.A. thought they were playing Salt Lake," Schmid said. "They put out a press release saying they were playing Salt Lake. We hate to disappoint them."