With cold winds blowing — gusts of change and Mother Nature’s version, too — around Rio Tinto Stadium, Real Salt Lake turned nose-first into its win-or-die playoff game against the L.A. Galaxy on Thursday night determined to prolong the wafting.
Once — if — RSL is bounced, nobody on the club wants to face whatever it is that comes next, what with rumors that Jason Kreis, the coach who rearranged the fortunes of a bad soccer outfit here - alongside general manager Garth Lagerwey — into one of the most consistent regular-season teams in Major League Soccer and a tantalizing perennial contender, could be edging away from the franchise. Lagerwey remains under contract for another year, but what if he also wanted out?
Don’t think, just play, and let the gusts swirl. That’s what RSL did in the second leg of its Western Conference semifinal series, beating the two-time defending champion L.A. Galaxy, 2-1 on aggregate. Having dropped the initial leg, 1-0, in Los Angeles on Sunday, implementing a different formation, Real had to put a beat-down on the Galaxy in the friendly confines to survive - and that’s precisely what it did. If You-Know-Who decides to bolt and You-Know-Who-2 bides a bit of time before exiting, as well, that would be a problem for a different night.
Here’s what you absolutely must know about this match and this series: RSL deserved to win it. The Galaxy went on doing what it does a lot — sitting in wait, sitting, and then countering — with Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane leading the way. As for Real, patience on attack was more than a whispered key, even though the circumstances, the prospects of elimination, shouted in comparatively deafening go-go-go tones.
Coming back from down a goal to advance was a long shot. That was a negative way to look at it. The positive: All RSL had to do was win a big game at home. But, after what’s happened in recent biggies at Rio Tinto, maybe that wasn’t such an optimistic swing thought.
Either way, in Leg 2, Real went back to its familiar form — a diamond configuration — allowing for more of the possession soccer it loves to play, enabling runs out from midfield toward offensive opportunity triggered by Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales.
And that happened, too. When Sebastian Velasquez drilled a header off a looping ball from Chris Wingert in the 35th minute to give RSL a 1-1 tie on aggregate, the fates played a role there because the reason Velasquez started was Ned Grabavoy’s injury. It was the 22-year-old midfielder’s first career MLS goal. And it stirred relief and resilience and resolve from within Real.
And that mix made things crazy. The home team aggressively attacked without getting careless — that major objective against the Galaxy. Spurred further by a double-save by GK Nick Rimando in the 65th minute, Real grew stronger and stronger. Pushing hard, it collected a string of chances: In the 75th minute, a Chris Schuler header on a Morales corner hit the crossbar. Three minutes later, Alvaro Saborio hit the left post from the edge of the box. In the 85th minute, a wind-aided Morales free kick from 40 yards skidded into the goal and the place went bananas - except a foul was called on the play, negating the goal. On and on it went.
… Until in the 102nd minute of extra time — a winner had to be determined, somehow, some time — one more free kick by Morales was tapped in by Schuler on the back post, at last giving Real the lead it had earned. From there, RSL hung on for victory — and moves forward now to the Western Conference finals.
Those are some of the specifics, but … what stood at the end of a blustery night at Rio Tinto was Real’s clutch play under duress against a tough opponent defending its back-to-back titles. That was impressive. The winds of change may go on blowing hard around here, rumors may yet swirl, but somewhere in that swirl are RSL’s championship hopes — still alive.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone.