In the 78th minute of the seventh game of the 10th season, Real Salt Lake finally got even.
RSL’s 1-0 victory over Portland at Rio Tinto Stadium lifted the franchise’s all-time record to 108-108-77. That’s another remarkable achievement for an expansion team that started so inauspiciously and now is a Major League Soccer model.
Ned Grabavoy’s left-footed, bouncing shot into the corner of the net and a series of huge saves from goalkeeper Nick Rimando gave RSL (3-0-4) a nice win Saturday night in front of a sellout crowd of 20,496. The victory means RSL has more to show for the league’s only unblemished record this season. If Real had settled for another tie, it would have been unbeaten, but somewhat unfulfilled and largely undistinguished in the Western Conference, considering how Dallas (5-1-1) is entrenched in first place.
RSL long ago figured out how to stop losing so much. In Saturday’s episode, the team found a way to win.
Having beaten the Timbers, RSL can feel good about where this team is going in coach Jeff Cassar’s first season. And anyone who has followed RSL since its inception in 2005 should enjoy the achievement of a .500 record that once was almost inconceivable.
Real stood 32 games under .500 as of May 2008, when the team was playing home games at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Cassar was assisting Jason Kreis and players such as Rimando, Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales were in the early stages of their RSL careers. A franchise that has made six consecutive playoff appearances, won a championship and played in another MLS Cup final hardly should be viewed as average at this point, but reaching the break-even mark is worth some kind of observance.
"It’s extremely meaningful," said Cassar, who smiled and added, "I hope we don’t ever stay around there anymore."
RSL’s first opportunity to move above .500 since early in that inaugural season comes next Saturday against Vancouver. In the all-time rankings of Utah’s pro sports coaches, Cassar will be tough to beat if he never loses. Amid injuries and the coaching transition that followed Kreis’ departure to New York, RSL has used 17 different starters and kept winning — or at least tying. The team allowed late goals in ties at San Jose and Philadelphia, but beating Los Angeles and Toronto was impressive and Saturday’s victory was notable, even if it’s pretty much a standard-issue result against Portland.
RSL dominated the Timbers last season, posting a 4-0-2 record in all competitions. That included the 5-2 aggregate victory in the two-leg Western Conference finals. The Timbers (0-2-5) seemingly are not themselves this year, but they nearly succeeded in tying RSL and might even have won, if not for Rimando.
Real controlled the first half, although Portland produced the best scoring chance. Rimando punched away Darlington Nagbe’s close-range shot in the 19th minute, immediately re-establishing himself in goal after missing RSL’s last two games with a knee injury. Rimando repeatedly delivered in the second half, before and after Grabavoy’s goal, producing what Cassar described as "world-class" saves.
Nine players scored for RSL in those six games vs. Portland last year, accounting for 14 goals. Grabavoy was not among those scorers, but he came through Saturday with an assist from Sebastian Velasquez.
Even with a road-heavy schedule, RSL needed a good start this season. That’s because of the personnel upheaval that’s coming in mid-May, when Rimando, Beckerman and Alvaro Saborio leave for World Cup preparation. Real’s unbeaten record is partly attributable to its depth, which will become even more important.
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