Sandy • Five weeks ago, Jeff Cassar stood alone in a hallway underneath the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., trying to find the right words to explain Real Salt Lake’s fourth loss in its last six matches. The unwanted alternative to RSL’s unblemished 12-game start to the season was suddenly front and center.
RSL eventually wound up 10 points behind rival and first-place Seattle Sounders, and the summertime doldrums set anchor. RSL had its work cut out for it if inching its way back toward the top of the Western Conference was in the cards.
Storylines RSL 2, Sounders 1Joao Plata leads off scoring in the 53rd minute on a cross from Luke Mulholland.
» Mulholland scores his sixth goal of the season just four minutes later, sealing the win for RSL.
RSL 2,Sounders 1
Seattle FC 0 1 — 1
Real Salt Lake 0 2 — 2
First half » None.
Second half » 1, Real Salt Lake, Plata 11 (Mulholland), 53rd minute. 2, Real Salt Lake, Mulholland, 57th. 3, Seattle FC, Barrett 5, 72nd.
Goalies » Seattle FC, Stefan Frei Real Salt Lake, Nick Rimando.
Yellow Cards » Garcia, Real Salt Lake, 14th Scott, Seattle FC, 15th Yedlin, Seattle FC, 60th.
Referee » Silviu Petrescu. Assistant Referees » Jeff Hosking. Mike Kampmeinert. 4th Official » David Gantar.
Attendance » 20,483 (20,008)
Seattle FC » Stefan Frei, Zach Scott, DeAndre Yedlin, Chad Marshall, Leo Gonzalez (Aaron Kovar, 88th), Osvaldo Alonso, Gonzalo Pineda, Brad Evans (Andy Rose, 46th), Lamar Neagle (Chad Barrett, 62nd), Clint Dempsey, Kenny Cooper.
Real Salt Lake » Nick Rimando, Tony Beltran, Chris Schuler, Chris Wingert (Carlos Salcedo, 89th), Nat Borchers, Luke Mulholland, Ned Grabavoy, Luis Gil, Kyle Beckerman, Olmes Garcia (Robbie Findley, 60th), Joao Plata (Cole Grossman, 80th).
Day by day, week by week, RSL slowly chipped away.
It was on a sunny afternoon in Sandy five weeks later that the club cemented its quick about-face. In topping Seattle 2-1 in front of 20,483 spectators Saturday, the return to the top was complete. RSL (11-4-9, 42 points) overcame a midseason 10-point deficit to move atop the Western Conference, and perhaps more importantly, the Supporters’ Shield race.
"We had to claw back in it," said RSL captain Kyle Beckerman. "We had to put in some work to at least get in the talks."
After Saturday’s victory — RSL’s fourth in its last five matches — it’s clear the club has rediscovered its early-season form. A similar face has been there since the season-opener on March 8 leading the way. Second-year RSL forward Joao Plata scored his team-leading 11th goal of the year against the Sounders in the 53rd minute. The diminutive forward drifted unmarked at the back post when RSL midfielder Luke Mulholland played a free kick into the box.
The 5-foot-2 forward leapt off the ground and sent the ball by the outstretched arms of Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei.
"I’m content scoring goals with my head," Plata said through a translator. "I don’t mind it. I’m finding the ball, and if it’s coming to my head, I’m going to score."
Four minutes later, midfielder Luis Gil, starting in place of an injured Javier Morales, slipped a ball to Luke Mulholland. Both Mulholland and Seattle midfielder Osvaldo Alonso met the ball with their feet, but whoever had the last nick of it sent it by Frei to double RSL’s lead. It was ruled an own goal on Alonso, but the league later overturned that ruling and awarded Mulholland his sixth goal.
It sent Rio Tinto Stadium into a pure uproar.
"We were really up for it," Beckerman said. "We were really excited for the game and we felt like this was a huge opportunity that we earned, and it was up to us to take advantage of that."
Obtaining three points grew a little more hairy than anticipated late in the game. A miscommunication between defenders Chris Schuler and Chris Wingert on a cross played in by Seattle forward Kenny Cooper led to shots on goal by Clint Dempsey and Andy Rose. Goalkeeper Nick Rimando was there each time, but when substitute Chad Barrett barreled in to put a foot on the ball , it sailed into the back of the net in the 72nd minute.
Suddenly RSL was tasked with defending and killing off the match that guaranteed a return to first place and a head-to-head victory over an MLS Cup contender. Unlike previous outings this year in which sustained leads eventually evolved into disappointing draws, RSL held on. When referee Silviu Petrescu blew his whistle, Beckerman threw his arms up in celebration. RSL coach Jeff Cassar turned and pointed to the crowd as he was engulfed by his coaching staff.
"I think guys are starting to feel it and smell it," Cassar said.
You’d think so. Five weeks ago, first place seemed eons away. Flash forward to Aug. 16 and RSL isn’t just back in the thick of things — it’s leading the way with 10 games to go.
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