Sitting one point out of the third spot in the West, Real Salt Lake came into its season finale against Chivas USA on Wednesday with a sense of urgency. Having fallen twice to the lowly Goats twice on the season, RSL needed to secure maximum points before heading into the MLS postseason in the hopes of improving its playoff position.
The result: comprehensive domination by the Claret-and-Cobalt en route to a 2-0 shutout victory.
A simple glance at the less-than-extraordinary score line obscures the home side’s control of the match. Against a Chivas squad content to sit deep and defend, RSL controlled 74.5% of the possession—much of it in the Chivas half of the field—and outshot the visitors 16 to 4. Nick Rimando was untested all night, facing not a single shot on goal. The margin of victory could have been larger, as RSL had two goals nullified by offside calls.
Alvaro Saborio netted the opener from the penalty spot in the 36th minute after center referee Fotis Bazakos determined the Tico had been taken down in the box by Bobby Burling on a Javier Morales free kick. The goal raised Saborio’s regular season season tally to 7 goals in spite of only seeing limited action after suffering a broken bone in his foot in the days prior to the start of the 2014 World Cup.
For as bad as Chivas looked in the early parts of the match, matters got much worse in the 56th minute when Chivas midfielder Marvin Chavez was shown a straight red for intentionally kicking a dead ball at an assistant referee. With Chivas reduced to ten men, Kyle Beckerman doubled the home side’s lead in the 74th minute by successfully nutmegging goalkeeper Dan Kennedy after a perfect through ball into the box from Joao Plata.
Saborio almost notched a brace in the 66th minute, but was ruled offside (perhaps incorrectly).
With the win, Real Salt Lake finishes the season with a record of 15-8-11 (56 points) and moves up to third place in the West, although FC Dallas will have the opportunity to jump RSL with a win against Portland on Saturday.
Playoff Position: RSL had a lot to play for tonight. With the win, RSL keeps itself in contention for the third spot in the West and the fourth spot in the overall table. Those spots, it turns out, are very important. The third place team in each conference avoids the “play-in” game and passes directly to the conference semifinals; falling to fourth means an extra match against the fifth-place team. If RSL does end up in the play-in game, that fifth-place team will be the Vancouver Whitecaps, a squad that has given RSL fits this year. Additionally, the fourth-place team in the overall table would be in line to receive a CONCACAF Champions League spot should Seattle, Los Angeles, or DC win MLS Cup 2014. (Seattle has secured a spot by winning the U.S. Open Cup, and DC locked in its place by finishing at the top of the Eastern Conference. Los Angeles will qualify for CONCACAF Champions League either by winning the Supporters’ Shield or, should Seattle win the Shield, by finishing second in the overall table and receiving Seattle’s duplicate spot. If one of those teams qualifies again by winning MLS Cup, that bid will go to the highest team in the overall table not otherwise qualified for Champions League.) Finally, Wednesday’s win guarantees that RSL will finish ahead of New England, the Eastern Conference 2-seed. Should RSL advance to MLS Cup 2014, it would therefore host any team except the East’s top seed, DC United.
“Controlando la Pelota”: RSL is known for priding itself on possession and passing. Wednesday’s match put RSL’s ball control on full display, maintaining 74.5% possession for the game and 79.3% possession in the second half. The Claret-and-Cobalt tripled Chivas in the total passes column, 615 to 205, and almost quadrupled Chivas in completed passes, 558 to 146. Most importantly, RSL successfully translated possession into goal-scoring opportunities, something the team failed to do in a 1-0 loss to Chivas on October 5, when RSL managed only 1 shot on goal after enjoying 73% possession. The scoreboard showed 2-0, but RSL had two other goals called back on close offside calls, and Joao Plata and Alvaro Saborio each missed a sitter from inside the six.
Consistency: With the win against Chivas USA, RSL locked up a 15-win season. RSL has achieved this mark every year since 2010, a feat matched only by the LA Galaxy in that time. During that span, RSL has finished second in the Western Conference three times and third once. RSL will finish this year in either third or fourth. That consistency is a credit to Real Salt Lake as an organization: by creating a stable environment with little reliance on high-paid superstars, the team has implemented a model for long-term success. As the end of the 2012 season approached and the breakup of much of RSL’s core appeared inevitable, many viewed RSL’s final games as a last hurrah for the club, and it was no surprise when RSL subsequently lost striker Fabian Espindola, defender Jamison Olave, and midfielder Will Johnson to other suitors with more money available. The surprise came a year later, when RSL successfully plugged new players into each position and was in realistic striking distance of logging a domestic treble: a 2013 U.S. Open Cup victory, an MLS Cup 2013 victory, and the 2013 Supporters’ Shield. Unsurprisingly (and perhaps reasonably), fears of RSL’s demise arose once more with the departure of Jason Kreis to NYCFC. The result? A new head coach, another 50+ point season in which RSL contended for the Supporters’ shield, and another playoff opportunity. I have no problem with people attempting to predict RSL’s downfall. But thanks to the club’s culture, the naysayers have yet to be right, and I hope it stays that way.