2011 MLS Cup Conference Semifinals: Real Salt Lake weathers Seattle storm, Sporting Kansas City cruise by defending MLS Cup champions from Colorado

The first of two successive nights of MLS Conference Semifinal doubleheaders is in the books, and Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake are through. For Sporting, their dominance of a Colorado Rapids side decimated by injuries was completed as they ran off a second straight 2-0 win over the defending MLS Cup champions. Meanwhile, the Seattle Sounders put up an incredible fight against Real, but came up a goal short in their quest to rebound from a three goal first leg deficit. Both Real Salt Lake and Sporting KC will await the results of the second doubleheader later today to learn of their opponents in Sunday’s pair of conference finals.

Colorado Rapids 0 (0) vs. Sporting Kansas City 2 (2) — SKC advance 4-0 on aggregate

After suffering a brutal defeat at home to Sporting Kansas City on the weekend, where the team lost three starters to injuries, the Colorado Rapids limped into LIVESTRONG Park Wednesday night hoping against hope that they could rally for a second leg victory. Unfortunately, with little to offer against a Sporting team that is playing solid soccer on both sides of the ball, the Rapids fell 2-0 for the second straight encounter, and were eliminated from the playoffs.

While the Rapids were forced to make a number of changes to their starting line-up — and play their third playoff-level intense match in a week — Sporting sent out the same eleven from the first leg match, and they looked the more cohesive of the two sides. Colorado showed little sign that they would be able to overturn the two goal deficit from game one, and instead tried to physically outplay SKC on their home turf. Instead, Sporting were the team that created the best scoring opportunities in the first half, and they finally capitalized off a free kick header finished by defender Aurelien Collin.

The third goal on aggregate in the series took away any momentum the Rapids had gained through their smashmouth soccer, and it seemed only a matter of time before SKC could celebrate a place in the conference finals. Twice in the second half, Collin nearly iced the game with scoring opportunities, as the Rapids defense continued an evening long habit of loose marking on set pieces. The second goal of the night, and the fourth in the series finally came for the home side courtesy of 2011 MLS Rookie of the Year favorite C.J. Sapong.

With Colorado again failing to properly defend on a Sporting set piece, Graham Zusi delivered a fine free kick into the area for the rookie to head home over Rapids goalkeeper Matt Pickens. For Zusi, the set piece specialist for SKC, it was his second assist of the night. The goal completely took the air out of the game, but not the boisterous Kansas City crowd, and the match ended rather uneventfully. The Rapids will enter the off season with a litany of issues to be resolved, from coach Gary Smith’s continued employment to the inevitable roster shake-up that occurs for a team that capitulated to easily in this series. Meanwhile, Sporting KC turns their eyes forward to hosting the MLS Eastern Conference Final and a possible date in the MLS Cup Final later this month.

Real Salt Lake 3 (0) vs. Seattle Sounders FC 0 (2) — RSL advance 3-2 on aggregate

What the first match of Wednesday’s MLS doubleheader lacked in excitement, the night cap delivered in spades. In a two game series that can rightfully be described by the cliché “a tale of two halves”, the Seattle Sounders bounced back from a horrible road performance at Rio Tinto Stadium to nearly break Real Salt Lake hearts in the return leg. Making up two of the three goals by which they trailed, and having a sell-out crowd of well over 35,000 rave green clad supporters at full volume behind them, the Sounders had 30 minutes to find an aggregate equalizer, but failed to do so and exited from the 2011 postseason.

While retiring Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller had little to do on the night, his RSL counterpart Nick Rimando reminded everyone of why he has two MLS Cup championships to his name. Facing an onslaught of Seattle attacks and backing up a make-shift defensive line that was missing All-stars Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave due to injury, Rimando willed his team to the aggregate victory with sharp goalkeeping and a sturdy organizational command. Saving seven of the nine shots Seattle had on target, the RSL ‘keeper was the man of the match as this team moved one step closer to returning to the MLS Cup Final for the first time since they won it all in 2009.

The Seattle Sounders had to endure a difficult week following their 3-0 dismantling over the weekend, but they proved to be up for the seemingly insurmountable challenge of overcoming the deficit. From the opening whistle, the Sounders looked to press RSL with ferocity. The visitors countered with a physical approach that led to two Sounders players being the victim of injuries and early substitutions. The deep Seattle bench ensured that they would not be thrown by the changes, with midfielder Lamar Neagle providing a big boost for his side following his introduction at the expense of Designated Player Alvaro Fernandez.

The first half finished scoreless, but not for a lack of trying by the home side. Seattle had a 2 to 1 advantage in possession in the first 45 minutes, as well as the entirety of quality scoring opportunities. All that was missing was a goal for their efforts, but the RSL defense refused to break. To aid an emergency defensive back four that saw Chris Schuler and Chris Wingert paired in the center, midfielders Kyle Beckerman and Will Johnson dropped deep in support and abandoned their normal stations in the RSL diamond formation. Real Salt Lake sacrificed the possession tactics that they employed to such great effect in the first leg in an effort to see out the win in Seattle.

The Sounders finally notched a tally on the scoreboard via a penalty kick in the 56th minute, and they doubled their lead minutes later following a Neagle finish off a sublime through ball from Fredy Montero. Real Salt Lake looked wounded, and the tone of the match turned to not if Seattle could come back, but when would they score the aggregate equalizer. With over half an hour still on the clock, the Sounders played aggressively in the RSL half, in search of the third goal that would send the match into extra time. However, with the expenditure of effort given to narrow the deficit to one goal finally catching up to them, Seattle could not muster up that one chance to push their in-game lead to 3-0. Tired legs and rushed tactics and long balls colluded to weaken the Sounders attack, and the final whistle finally sounded on the Real aggregate victory.

The Seattle Sounders have nothing to be ashamed of in their second leg performance, and the team will go into the off season more motivated than ever to find a combination of players and tactics that can finally get them past the first round of the MLS postseason. Meanwhile, RSL will count their blessings and do everything possible to heal up ahead of Sunday’s Western Conference Final. With a potential date against the Los Angeles Galaxy looming — a match-up seen in the 2009 MLS Cup Final on the pitch in Seattle — Real Salt Lake will look to continue their roll through the 2011 MLS playoffs.

(Photos used in illustration courtesy of Joe Nuxoll and Kelley L. Cox, centerlinesoccer.com)

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