Real Salt Lake drubbed Seattle Sounders FC 3–0 Saturday night, and the easy line is that Jason Kreis’ team dominated a talented foe simply because he was finally able to field his first-choice lineup. For the first time since Javi Morales fell under Mondaini’s tackle in May, Kreis was able to stick Kyle Beckerman and Morales between Will Johnson and Andy Williams, and it was easy to recall the brilliance that garnered so much attention when RSL backed up the hype of their 2009 MLS Cup with a stellar 2010 regular season and a trip to the CONCACAF Champions League final in early 2011.
It’s hard to argue with that logic. Javi picked up his 4th and 5th playoff assists and Beckerman did what he does for club and country, breaking up attacks and feeding his midfield-mates. The team that took the field in the first leg of the Western Conference Semifinal at Rio Tinto was the same team that just about outdid Monterrey in April, that shocked L.A. in November of ’09.
But it was more than a matter of personnel on Saturday. A switch seemed to flip mentally or RSL against Seattle. The quick, relentless team defense earned them 55% possession. The off-the-ball runs turned into 80% pass completion, to Seattle’s 64%. The offensive connectivity—absent for long spells in the 2011 campaign, even during their win streaks—put 11 of their 19 shots on goal. (Seattle had 12 shots, zero on goal.) The backline chemistry never broke down, even when Jamison Olave left with a quad strain in the 31st minute and Nat Borchers limped off in the 78th on a bad knee.
It takes more than just putting Javi next to Kyle, is what I’m saying.
Morales could only find holes in the defense because the rest of his side was matching Fabian Espindola’s yearlong yeoman’s effort on both sides of the ball. Morales found left back Chris Wingert’s overlapping run at the end of the first half, whose troubling ball was bound for the net after it nicked Jhon Kennedy Hurtado’s heel. (Saborio bumped it over the goal line because, hey, he’s an opportunist, and if it’s that nose for goal that inspired his second half backheel, let it be.)
Wingert and right back Robbie Russell were dominant in both halves of the field, whipping in crosses as often as they were getting the jump on the balls played into their marks. The rare ball Fredy Montero received in RSL’s half was tackled swiftly away, and Mike Fucito, Sammy Ochoa and Alvaro Fernandez could only bounce around the periphery of RSL’s fortified defensive nucleus.
Espindola and Williams kept Seattle’s back four guessing as the RSL attack seemed to come from all angles, through all channels. Johnson chased down balls he had no right to, and his first half blast was a taste of what Keller would face all night.
The subs did what subs ought to and provided a spark. Chris Schuler filled Olave’s large shoes and helped repel a last ditch Seattle onslaught, as did Luis Gil who mainly knocked balls out of danger during his 10 minutes. Grabavoy contributed on defense and scored the punishing 3rd goal after outhustling his defender in the 88th minute.
This was a Real Salt Lake team full of purpose. No doubt some of their confidence springs from a menacing duo in the center of the pitch, but every last player executed his role.
Did I miss anyone? Oh yeah. Nick Rimando picked a few crosses out, but otherwise had a quiet night. Not that he’s complaining.
Questions for the second leg:
- Can RSL play like they believe their team-wide refrain, that “It’s only halftime”? Was this game a tide shift or one-off?
- Will Mauro Rosales be back? Can he bring something out of Osvaldo Alonso to rival Beckerman and Morales?
- Will Olave recover in the short turnaround? Can Borchers’ knee handle the Century Link turf?
- How deep is the Sounders Supporters’ love? Will a sell-out crowd be the 12th man or will the 3–0 deficit dampen their spirits?
(image courtesy of realsaltlake.com)