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Saturday, November 3, 2012 - Page updated at 11:00 p.m.

Steve Kelley
Rimando bedevils Sounders again

By Steve Kelley
Times staff columnist

The attack was relentless. Ninety minutes of hellish fury. The Sounders pushed the pace, pressuring Real Salt Lake up the middle, tormenting it with set pieces that seemed almost as dangerous as penalty kicks.

Even without leading scorer Eddie Johnson, who was out with a leg injury, the Sounders played this playoff game full throttle and nonstop. They played almost desperately.

If playoff games in all sports are supposed to be cautious, tense defensive struggles, then this first leg of the Western Conference semifinals Friday night broke every rule in the book.

The Sounders came at RSL and its marvelous keeper, Nick Rimando, for almost 100 minutes.

And still they couldn't score. They threw crosses and blasted volleys toward Rimando, and he stood up to all of them.

In this first leg, the Sounders and Real Salt Lake played to a scoreless tie. But don't judge this game by the final score.

This playoff match was like watching two classic fighters. One, the Sounders, threw 90 minutes of haymakers. The other, RSL, counterpunched.

And it was wildly entertaining, so good you hoped referee Hilario Grajeda would add about 30 minutes of stoppage time. You wished the Sounders could keep playing until they solved the riddle of Rimando.

"It will have to go down as one of the single best individual performances by anyone who's ever worn an RSL jersey," Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis said of Rimando's night.

Rimando stopped every Sounders advance. He took every punch thrown by the Sounders, the figurative and the literal punches.

He had five saves and late in the game, he took an inadvertent pop in the face from Christian Tiffert and stayed in the game.

Rimando also suffered a broken nose and, after the game, he had the nose reset and the cut on the side of his right eye stitched.

"We thought he was going to have to come out," Kreis said. "They couldn't stop the bleeding. But they did a good job of getting the blood stopped, and Nick continued on with a real brave effort."

The Sounders, who play the second leg of the semifinals in Salt Lake on Thursday, have played 360 minutes this season and still haven't scored a goal on Rimando.

"Nicky saved us tonight," forward Fabian Espindola said.

In the first half, the Salt Lake keeper faced two deadly corner kicks from Mauro Rosales.

On the first, Sammy Ochoa's header from point-blank range was flicked in the air by Rimando's left hand and onto the top netting of the goal.

A shot that good and that close usually finds a way into the net even if the keeper makes contact. Ochoa was so sure he had scored, he started to smile and looked ready to celebrate.

Seconds later, Rosales sent another corner to Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, who was lurking free about 5 yards from the goal. But Hurtado's header somehow was reflexed over the end line by the Real Salt Lake Riddler-keeper.

After the save, a stunned Hurtado sat in disbelief in front of the RSL goal.

Six minutes into the second half, Rimando was magical again. Tiffert headed a ball from 5 yards out that seemed to beat him. But the RSL keeper, having a night for the ages, scooped it while diving to the turf, corralling the shot just before it crossed the goal line.

"Nick's big-time," RSL midfielder and captain Kyle Beckerman said. "He's been one of the best goalkeepers in the league for years now. He's done it year after year, so people expect it. And tonight he did another game like he always does."

As good as they've been since their inception, four years into their existence, the Sounders really still haven't won a playoff game. They outscored RSL in last year's second playoff leg but lost the series on aggregate.

RSL is so good defensively. It closed down the Sounders quickly. It made the Sounders play more frantically because of the pressure.

The Sounders hurried a few shots, like Ochoa's second-half chip shot, a would-be game-winner that went over the goal in the 50th minute. The Sounders will look at this game as a night of what-could-have-beens.

A home tie in the playoffs always feels like a loss. The situation is dire again for Seattle.

But the Sounders should have Johnson back for the rematch and this one last chance to solve the riddle of Rimando.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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