The match with Portland was pretty, and not just because of the fortuitous ending. Last night, not so much. Real Salt Lake (4–1–0, 12 pts.) clung to Paulo, Jr.’s 13th minute penalty kick and shooed Montreal (0–1–4, 1 pt.) out of a sold-out Rio Tinto Stadium with a 1–0 win Wednesday night.
After the game, Coach Kreis said, “We lost a game ten days ago [1–0 to Chivas USA] and I was pleased with the performance but displeased with the result. Tonight I’m displeased with the performance. It’s the first game this year I can say that. A lot of things to be displeased about and only one to be pleased with, and that’s the three points.”
It wasn’t the dominant display fans have come to expect at Rio Tinto. RSL only just edged out Montreal in possession, lost 57% of the duels in the first half and gave away an uncharacteristic number of balls in the midfield.
Part of this lack of synchronicity could be blamed on a lineup that included a lot of new faces. Terakazu Tanaka made his RSL debut, while Will Johnson and Jonny Steele made their first starts of the season. Tanaka, Steele, Paulo, Luis Gil and Chris Schuler got the nod as Kreis rested Chris Wingert Javier Morales, Ned Grabavoy, Álvaro Saborío and Nat Borchers ahead of this Saturday’s home match against Colorado.
While it was surprising to see so many familiar faces on the bench, Kreis seems happy to test his team’s depth after picking up a lot of new players in the offseason. He has said he will take a more cautious approach in reintegrating injured players this year, and it makes sense to get new and less experienced players on the field early in the season before this fall’s CONCACAF Champions League qualifying congests their schedule.
It could be that RSL’s preferred style of play makes minor mistakes appear more obvious. They build slowly out of the back and move the ball back and forth through the midfield until the opposing defense yields a channel to the forwards, and a few minutes of work can be undone with a single missed touch. Even the team defense they favor depends on a familiarity between the two or three or four players working together to close down space, and it was lacking a few times against Montreal.
A few individual performances stood out in an otherwise choppy match. Paulo was dangerous one-on-one and pesky on defense. The penalty kick was his first goal in a season where he’s done about everything right but seemed snake-bit in front of the goal. Schuler was my man of the match, the brightest in an above-average backline, intercepting through passes and knocking away crosses confidently. What Jonny Steele lacked in offensive precision he made up in tenacity, and he must have been exhausted when Grabavoy replaced him in the second half.
For Montreal, former RSL man Collen Warner was the most consistent player in the middle of the field and Justin Mapp caused problems coming in from the wings. Only Rimando’s impeccable timing kept Mapp from connecting with an active Justin Braun for a second-half equalizer.
Montreal lived up to their aggressive reputation and RSL were no choir boys themselves, but Ricardo Salazar, filled with grace, only saw fit to hand out one yellow card all night, to Felipe Martin after his fifth foul.
Montreal fought to the end, with a flurry of chances in the final 10 minutes smothered by the RSL defense. The home team was shorthanded for that spell of play, with Morales leaving the game in the 88th minute with a pulled hamstring and Grabavoy playing 20 minutes with what was judged to be a broken rib. Prognoses are still forthcoming, but it seems neither of them will play in the next couple of games, at least. (Will we see more Sebastian Velasquez?)
Kreis did manage to find one more positive to take from the match. “We fought really hard to maintain the result, basically down a man and a half.” A bit of that grit might come in handy on Saturday when RSL welcomes those other guys from the Rockies.
(image courtesy of Getty Images)