Monson: Big hope for Real Salt Lake now
Mighty Momentum was not on Real Salt Lake's side.
It is now.
The home team churned into Major League Soccer's postseason against favored Seattle, which had won seven of its last nine league games, late Saturday night at Rio Tinto Stadium sporting a six-game winless streak. Nearly the entire season had been a luckless skid for Real.
They were, then, two ships passing in the night.
The RSL engines and fortunes reversed quickly and convincingly in the first leg of the clubs' Western Conference semifinal series, going up in aggregate goals, 3-0.
"We're very, very pleased with the result," RSL coach Jason Kreis said.
No reason not to be.
Third-seeded Real pressured the second-seeded Sounders throughout, drilling shots at keeper Kasey Keller, and beating him late in the first half on a sweet play. Midfielder Javier Morales changed up speeds before delivering a ball to Chris Wingert, who left-footed a shot toward the goal, a shot that turned into an assist when Alvaro Saborio tapped it in. Whether Saborio had touched it or not, it would have hit the net.
Morales fired a pass from the right to Saborio in the 53rd minute, and the forward back-heeled the ball into the goal for RSL's second score.
Game over. Punch and propulsion redirected.
Ned Grabavoy added a last bit of horsepower with a late goal.
There were opportunities for Seattle, such as in extra time at the end of the first half, when the Sounders' Alvaro Fernandez whiffed, or, more accurately, foul-tipped a header directly in front of Real's goal and could not convert.
Either way, RSL did more than enough to win, taking its advantage into Wednesday's second leg in Seattle.
Morales nearly scored at the top of the second half, but his chip from close range was beaned away by the active Keller.
It was the first time in a long time 30 games that Real was whole again. Kreis said he at last fielded his team's "strongest lineup." It was the first time since early May that two major components at RSL's core last year's MVP Morales and team captain Kyle Beckerman played on the same field together. Injuries and suspensions and absences had kept one or the other out. While not exactly on par with Stockton and Malone, Morales and Beckerman had been together for 95 games since coming to Utah in 2007.
Their 96th was a blessing for Real.
"It's taken me a long time to come back to normal," Morales said. "Unbelievable. I'm happy [Kyle's] back."
Said Kreis, "Javi found a little bit of his swagger."
Together, on Saturday night, the duo not only strengthened Real's middle in the physical sense but also freshened the team's outlook and its aggressiveness, a quality Kreis constantly targets.
When Morales was subbed out in the 79th minute, game in hand, the crowd gave him a loud ovation.
Coming in, Seattle had beaten RSL here, ending the club's league-record home undefeated streak at 29 games back in May, becoming only the second visiting MLS opponent to do so in a regular-season match. RSL returned the bad favor by beating the Sounders on their home field in September.
That last bit of reinforcement should bolster Real for the second-legger in Seattle.
In a year that started with the ups of Real's remarkable run through the CONCACAF Champions League competitions, ending with that heart-crushing result against Monterrey at Rio Tinto, and then saw the team battle through all kinds of hardship and weirdness, the calls and call-ups throughout the MLS regular season, the playoffs are now a chance for it to finish the same way it started with serious ups.
Real seemed to realize and play like that Saturday night. It wasn't a perfect performance, but there were enough good things happening in this playoff series' Leg 1 to give big hope for what could come RSL's way not only in Leg 2 but far beyond.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Gordon Monson Show" weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 AM The Zone.
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