After featuring as a crucial midfield component of the Honduras side that beat the U.S. men’s national team 2-1 in the opening round of the Hexagonal qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, Mario Martinez returned from nearly two months of national duty and rejoined the Seattle Sounders in Tucson just in time for their second match in group play at the Desert Diamond Cup. He dispelled questions about whether he would be fatigued from playing five international matches in three weeks, coming in at halftime to spark Seattle’s 2-1 victory over Real Salt Lake. The win, coming on the heels of the Sounders’ shutout of the New England Revolution in their opening match of Desert Diamond Cup play, booked Seattle a spot in the Feb. 23 final with a group game left to play.
Much like the matches these two teams played out last fall in the MLS playoffs, the first half was a masterstroke of strategy as both sides locked down on each other’s offense. The best opportunities were few and far between — Salt Lake’s Kwame Watson-Siriboe misconnected his header of a Kyle Beckerman corner kick just outside the far post in the 13th minute; Joao Plata missed a 25-yarder to the left for Real in the 24th minute; Seattle came close in the 39th, David Estrada misfiring on a low cross from DeAndre Yedlin, who had entered the game only a minute earlier for Adam Johansson. With neither attack able to crack through the defenses, the whistle blew for the intermission with the score gridlocked with goose-eggs.
Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid swapped out eight of his remaining ten starters at the half, testing out two trialists and unsigned draft pick Dylan Remick from Brown University among the switches. Real’s Jason Kreis opted to keep his starting lineup mostly intact, swapping only Yordany Alvarez for former San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Khari Stephenson, who had joined Salt Lake after going unselected in last December’s Re-Entry Draft.
The switch did wonders for the Sounders, especially the introduction of Honduran spitfire Martinez. Immediately his dynamic vision was apparent, the 23-year-old dictating play almost immediately upon his entry. Rather than looking fatigued, he looked rejuvenated from his time with Honduras. In the 65th minute his pace paid dividends, as Martinez pounced on a botched Real clearance and bent a screamer of a left-footed half-volley inside the far post from the edge of the area to give Seattle the lead.
Martinez was prominent on the insurance goal as well, setting up Osvaldo Alonso six minutes later. The midfielder struck a ball that Real goalkeeper Nick Rimando could only graze with his fingertips, deflecting it into the center of the area. Phillip Lund, a diminutive Danish striker trying out for the Sounders squad, pounced on the ball and beat Rimando from ten yards out to give Seattle the 2-0 lead.
They would need it. Kreis made a wholesale switch after the second goal, and the new legs promptly pressured Seattle the rest of the way. Rookie midfielder John Stertzer pulled one goal back in the 86th minute, putting away a deflected Stephenson shot past Josh Ford to halve the deficit. Stertzer nearly equalized three minutes later, heading Cole Grossman’s cross just over the bar.
Seattle, their fate already settled, face the New York Red Bulls on Wednesday. Salt Lake, with just one point from their first two matches, can earn a rematch by beating the New England Revolution and hoping the Sounders stay perfect against New York.