With his team trying to secure a Major League Soccer victory for the first time in five weeks, Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis understood how the players were feeling Saturday night.
They were anxious — but no more so than the coach himself.
The guys he described as “playing with a lot of angst” and feeling as though “they needed to score right away” were really no different than Kreis, who was preaching patience but wanting instant results.
That was not going to happen on a night prolonged by a lightning delay early in the game. In the end, the team hardly minded spending an extra 84 minutes at the job site.
All the waiting and all the work that went into the game’s only goal just served to make a 1-0 victory over D.C. United more rewarding and meaningful at Rio Tinto Stadium.
RSL need this win badly, and earned it fully.
Real goalkeeper Nick Rimando was brilliant all night, and his teammates delivered just enough offense with a memorable winning play.
In hockey, the 49th-minute sequence that included touches by Javier Morales, Ned Grabavoy and Paulo Jr., leading to Will Johnson’s well-timed header into the goal would have merited a couple of assists.
In soccer, because the set-up ball was deflected, no assist was awarded. But the play illustrated everything Kreis talked about at halftime — including instructions about not trying so hard to score, counterintuitive as that may sound.
“We just needed to knock it around,” Kreis said. “You need some possession sometimes to recognize that just keeping the ball does something to our opponent.”
Or as Johnson explained, “We wanted to get some possessions and some good buildups to get good chances.”
Ultimately, all that mattered was the three points in the standings that Johnson’s goal provided. Here’s why this victory was so vital: Shortly before RSL’s shutout was secured, Los Angeles wrapped up a 2-0 win over Vancouver that temporarily moved the Galaxy into a tie with RSL for second place in the Western Conference.
About 15 minutes later, RSL leapfrogged the Galaxy. So now, with six games left in the regular season , Real remains in the thick of the fight with Los Angeles and Seattle for the No. 2 seed in the West. By losing or even tying Saturday, RSL could have fallen as low as fourth place after Sunday’s play.
“They’re breathing down our necks, which is great,” said RSL defender Nat Borchers. “We like to be under pressure a little bit.”
Well, that’s certainly where this team is.
Beyond the standings, there was a sense as the calendar turned to September that RSL had better figure this stuff out, and soon. Going into Saturday’s game, did anybody know what to think of these guys?
As of mid-June, Real was appearing dominant in MLS, having posted four victories during a six-game unbeaten streak. After that, RSL faded, losing its well-established aura at Rio Tinto.
Prior to Saturday’s win, Real had gone 3-7-2 since the high point of the season. Considering how D.C. United similarly was struggling lately, this game represented RSL’s opportunity to launch a strong finish and solidify a decent playoff seed.
An enthusiastic gathering of 20,334 greeted the home team, but then had to endure the lengthy delay. Those who stayed among the original sellout crowd were rewarded during the second half, when RSL followed what Kreis was saying — not how he was feeling.