Five days, 40,000-plus fans, two shutouts and two meaningful victories for the home teams.
Not a bad week in the life of Rio Tinto Stadium.
Never in the nearly five years since the venue opened had any two soccer games as significant as these been staged so close together. Thanks to the two dominant performances, the U.S. men’s national team moved closer to qualifying for the World Cup and Real Salt Lake jumped into first place in Major League Soccer’s Western Conference after Saturday’s 2-0 defeat of the Seattle Sounders FC.
Just to help frame the moment, the Super Moon sure looked like a soccer ball, rising over the mountain behind the stadium as the clock wound down to conclude a memorable pair of events.
“Great week,” said RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
“... Big for soccer in Utah,” said midfielder Kyle Beckerman.
The two of them did not play in the U.S. team’s 1-0 defeat of Honduras, but they enjoyed their opportunity to join in Tuesday’s spectacle. Upon returning to RSL, Beckerman delivered a brilliant goal and Rimando needed to make only one save while directing an outstanding defensive effort as the home team schooled the rival Sounders.
Seattle’s Eddie Johnson and Brad Evans contributed to the national team’s win, but they were powerless against Real’s strong effort.
FC Dallas’ 2-2 tie with Sporting Kansas City meant that with a victory, RSL (9-5-3) could take over first place in the West.
If I’ve learned anything about MLS during Real’s nine years in the Salt Lake Valley, it is how much the regular season is devalued. The playoffs are all that matter, and seeding is not especially critical. So coach Jason Kreis was not about to overreact to his team’s promotion.
“I don’t think we’ve played our best soccer yet, which is good,” said RSL defender Nat Borchers.
There’s nothing wrong with leading the conference standings. That’s particularly true in the case of RSL this season, after the team’s highly inconsistent performance in the first couple of months.
In the interest of validation, Seattle came to town Saturday with the distinction of the league’s co-hottest team, having matched Real’s 5-1-1 record in the previous seven games. These clubs have a great competitive history, having gone 5-5-5 prior to Saturday — with each eliminating the other in the playoffs of the past two seasons.
Beckerman’s goal late in the first half and Robbie Findley’s score early in the second half came only about five minutes apart.
Beckerman made a perfectly timed play on a bouncing ball — almost waist high — off a deflection of Javier Morales’ free kick, beating Seattle goalkeeper Michael Gspurning.
“That is not an easy strike to take, and he took it extremely calmly,” Kreis said.
Findley got two chances to score, after Gspurning’s block of his point-blank shot. The ball eventually came back to Findley, who buried it for a 2-0 lead.
Those goals came right about the time Dallas was rallying for its tie with Sporting KC, via two late scores. Real’s victory still was enough to move the team into first place — although Dallas has played one fewer game and Portland can match RSL with a win Sunday over Colorado.
Regardless, RSL should be feeling good about itself right now. The team is scoring like crazy lately, with 27 goals in 10 games of MLS and U.S. Open Cup competition. Having failed to convert all kinds of scoring opportunities early in the season, Real now is finishing consistently.
That would be a a good trend to extend through November.