Talk about flipping a script.
Down two goals just 30 minutes into Saturday night’s road match against the Chicago Fire, Real Salt Lake, pestered by the notable struggles of protecting late leads, found a way to introduce the winless Fire to a cruel and ironic twist of fate.
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RSL found vulnerability in the Fire late, exposed it, and found the back of the net three times in the final 24 minutes of play to stun Chicago, 3-2. The astounding turnaround kept the still-unbeaten start (4-0-5) to 2014 going, while earning those three points that evaporated in the final seconds of RSL’s 2-2 draw with Vancouver at Rio Tinto Stadium on April 26.
For all the chatter of analyzing its difficulty protecting leads at home and on the road, RSL responded after being smacked backward for the first time this season. Having trailed for a total of five minutes entering the ninth week of the Major League Soccer season, RSL’s flat start defensively pinned them into an early hole after sloppy marking resulted in two first-half goals for Chicago.
"No one wants to be down 2-0, but we felt at halftime that we weren’t playing bad," said captain Kyle Beckerman. "We gave up two shots and two goals, so we felt like if we can keep playing the way we were, and create chances and get a little tougher in the back, we felt like we could get one. And once we got one, we knew that a comeback was possible."
Joao Plata furthered his emergence as a vital addition to the starting lineup, scoring two goals — the first in the 72nd minute and the eventual game-winner in the 93rd minute — as Alvaro Saborio scored the equalizer in the 90th and assisted on Plata’s golden finish.
"He’s doing everything right now," said RSL coach Jeff Cassar of Plata, who now has five goals and two assists in six matches.
The come-from-behind victory upped RSL’s point total to 17 through nine matches, two points behind league-leading Seattle at 19. But the win signified another moment of development in Cassar’s young head-coaching career.
The club needed to carve out a way to pull a goal back in the second half after finding its rhythm with the ball. Cassar waited and eventually made a double-switch in the 69th minute, putting Sebastian Velasquez on for Luke Mulholland and outside back Abdoulie Mansally for Chris Wingert. Mansally’s substitution allowed RSL to push forward even further down the left flank and his 90th-minute cross found Saborio on the other end to knot things up 2-2. His holding the ball up allowed the attack to push forward before Javier Morales found Plata for the first goal.
Still trailing 2-1 in the 88th minute, Cassar pulled defensive presence Nat Borchers to put on another attacker in Olmes Garcia to stretch the Fire back line, which eventually conceded the two shocking late goals.
"Right now, we are feeling good," said RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando. "We still have a lot to improve on and to work on where we want to be. Each game we are trying to get better and I just felt today was another step in the right direction. Playing down and then coming back and getting three points on the road … whenever you get three points on the road, it’s huge for confidence."
No matter how it’s sliced, the start to the Cassar Era in 2014 has featured its dramatic highs and some disappointing dips. The only thing it hasn’t featured to date: a loss.
"This is one of the games I will remember," Beckerman said Saturday night. "I will remember a game like this forever, I think."
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