Real Salt Lake is like the great prizefighter who gets knocked down and gets back up, time and again, until he’s won by split decision.
RSL and LA split the first 180 minutes 1-1 on aggregate alright, then Real Salt Lake bashed home the Western Conference Semifinal winner in the 102nd minute — holding on for dear life the next 20 minutes of extra time to win.
Bruised and bloodied down to 10 men late on, RSL played before a following that sounded nearly catatonic in the first half until Sebastian Velasquez smashed home all doubt of a repeat performance from Game 1 with the most unlikely of all surfaces, his forehead.
The cross from Chris Wingert — who raced from his left back position to push forward into the attack — was an outswinger that swerved just outside the six-year-box and met Velasquez sideways on as he was flying into the scrum.
The side of Velasquez’ temple then bashed the ball into the net past the outstretched hands of Galaxy goalie Jaime Penedo.
“He is an extremely hungry player that has some real gifts. It’s sometimes difficult to get some of those gifts to come out of him. But tonight I think he took a major step forward,” said RSL head coach Jason Kreis after the win. “There’s no kind of kowtowing to the veteran players around him. He just stepped forward and said I’m going to have an impact on this game in some way and he did in a major, major way.”
It was Velasquez’s first goal of the season — and couldn’t have come at a better time for RSL, when it really needed something good to happen.
You could sense — as could the TV commentators in town from ESPN — that the crowd was excited before the match, singing the song “Believe” about as loudly as it’s ever been sung according to Kreis.
“At the beginning of the match I thought that was spectacular today how noisy it was. And just to carry that energy and to continue to believe,” Kreis said. “We tell our players all the time that no matter what happens in the game we continue to work hard we need to stay together and we need to believe. If you do those three things in the end good things will happen.”
But as the first few minutes wore on, and LA became more and more dangerous with its lightning-fast counterattacks in which six players seemingly and effortlessly moved into RSL’s defensive third, you could feel the nervous energy moving throughout Rio Tinto Stadium and that raucous crowd began to possibly have that doubt creep in.
Everyone knows what happened at Rio Tinto the last time a big game was played like this. RSL came in over-confident and had their butts handed to them in a silver-plated U.S. Open Cup as lowly D.C. United celebrated after stunning the home side.
But, that was then — and D.C. still couldn’t celebrate anywhere except for in its hotel room — and this was now, in a cold, soggy and windy place that looked the same — but provided a decidedly different outcome.
What Velasquez’ goal did was important; it neutralized that nervous energy that seemed to buoy the Galaxy attack and it gave both the team and fans hope that RSL would finally, if ever, get that proverbial monkey off of its backs once and for all.
Like all great Real Salt Lake performances, this game was never easy. The Galaxy pushed forward, even as RSL had the momentum leading 1-0.
The home team gave up corner kick after corner kick, expelling any idea that the claret and cobalt would blow out LA and send an emphatic message to the next opponent (or, Portland) that its scoring woes were over.
Not until the 12th minute of overtime did RSL put this game on ice, on a proverbial cold and windy night in Rio Tinto, for the gods wouldn’t even allow a beautifully taken free kick from midfield maestro Javier Morales to count in the 84th minute.
As and icy chill blew down from the tips of Mount Olympus into Rio Tinto so too did Morales’ inswinger, whipped in cleverly from about 35 yards out on his left flank.
The ball flew past everyone, possibly guided by the wind but maybe by something more. It even glided beyond the Galaxy goalkeeper Penedo, landing harmlessly inside right netting.
Fans in the RioT leapt to their feet, knowing this was the goal RSL needed to put the game away. LA was still too dangerous and still getting forward — though not at the same pace as before halftime, to be sure.
But, TV replays showed that Nat Borchers was in an offside position when Morales kicked the ball, thus disallowing the goal.
The problem was, Borchers wasn’t anywhere near the ball, or the play, when the ball was kicked — so by rule the goal should have stood.
What made the play more bizarre is that the linesperson did not raise his flag at the time of the so-called offsides; instead it was center referee Baldomero Toledo who came racing from the center circle to make the call.
However, the call Toledo made wasn’t offsides on Borchers, as everyone assumed. Instead it was a hand-foul on Chris Schuler — but he would get his comeuppance soon enough.
The game was tied 1-1 on aggregate, so it was on to overtime to determine the winner.
Sure enough, after the game went beyond the 90 minutes and into overtime Morales was again on the service side of the ball, whipping another set piece into the mixer in the 102nd minute.
It was another situation in which an RSL player got free of his marker, and Schuler got his leg on the ball, re-directing it into the net for a 2-0 RSL lead.
That lead would stand despite 21 shots by the Galaxy and enough chances to make any coach, particularly Kreis a bit shell-shocked — though relieved it was over and RSL was moving on.
Here’s how Real Salt Lake did the unthinkable to the Galaxy…
As indicated in my earlier column, RSL really needed a boost from its youth movement in order to stand a chance against the athletic, supremely skilled and decisive Galaxy attack.
Velasquez came off of the bench to replace Ned Grababoy, and frankly, despite how good Ned is at his position — and he may be back sunday against portland due to a knock Sebas got late on against LA — Velasquez was even better.
His insistence at finding a way to make that extra play proved to be the difference between pinning LA back on its heels — and having them unleash in no time flat another counterattack. LA hits you on the counter better than anyone in the league and so you need a creative type in the midfield who can hold the ball well, take defenders one-on-one and play the ball into gaps behind the defense.
He did that, and so did Luis Gil. It was just enough movement by the RSL mids — but not too much — to knock the Galaxy out of their play-making rhythm.
RSL purists will probably yell at me for making the assertion that less possession equals more wins. But, here’s the rub: it does. Go back and look at the statistics if you don’t believe.
It’s all well and good to want to play like FC Barcelona and employ that tiki-taki style of play that is pleasant to watch. What often happens in that style, however, is that the ball gets caught up in the midfield. Or, even worse the ball is dispossessed; you’ve got too many numbers in your attack — and you’re susceptible to a counterattack.
RSL lost some close matches this season by having too much possession. In this game, the claret and cobalt had about 48 percent of the possession compared to 52 percent for LA, which is just right for wins in which RSL had two or more goals.
Sure, everyone wants to talk about playing defense. Yes, it is important but let’s not forget that RSL gave up 12 corner kicks — and the Galaxy took 21 shots on RSL’s goal last night.
That none of them went in is surely a testament to the backline and goalkeeper — and frankly, the midfield in both games of the series — but it wasn’t all of the reason why.
Head coach Jason Kreis let the players do the talking leading up to Game 2, and he kept his mouth shut. Though some critics will probably point to the last 10 minutes of extra time as a situation that RSL should never have reached, playing with 10 men and no sub, I say B.S.
Kreis was simply trying to send a message to his team that they were trusted. Sure, Kreis bunkered in Los Angeles knowing full well that all he needed to do was get out of there with a chance to close it out at home — which he did, emphatically.
“I just think – I say it to the guys and I’ve said this in the press before. I think sometimes we do too much talking about tactics and shape, and all the other things, the beautiful game, the passing all these things,” said Kreis. “For me, honest to God, every time Real Salt Lake wants to win the game more than their opponent we win the game. And tonight we wanted it more than the L.A. Galaxy.