Monson: RSL climbs to top over Seattle
The sky was tall for Saturday afternoon's marquee match at Rio Tinto Stadium between Real Salt Lake and the Seattle Sounders, as was the challenge. With a sellout crowd and national television cameras dialed in on the two best teams in the West, now brawling for first place in the conference and an edge in the race for the Supporters' Shield, the contrast between them was clear and stark.
Gutty little RSL versus the glitz-and-glam Sounders.
The side from Utah that had made the team its star against the group that has become the flagship force in Major League Soccer, the American game's version of a traveling rock band, by featuring accomplished front men left and right. On the Sounders, the stars are the stars and they're everywhere. You've heard of Clint Dempsey. Obafemi Martins. DeAndre Yedlin. Osvaldo Alonso. Lamar Neagle. Seattle had stacked additional talent in offseason moves around Dempsey, the former Premier League forward and U.S. national team captain, and his mates.
That angle might be overplayed, but consider that Dempsey and Martins combine to make more money than the entire RSL roster.
Either way, in the end, none of that mattered. Facing off in the buzzard heat of August, Real stayed on task, after whiffing on early opportunities, then slammed the door on Seattle in the second half en route to a 2-1 win. It was emblematic that Luke Mulholland, a relative soccer nobody, played a role in both RSL goals, assisting on the first and then scoring the second, giving RSL its decisive margin, all as the likes of Dempsey registered nothing for the Sounders.
"Whenever he got the ball, we tried to get somebody up in his face," RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando said of Dempsey, his fellow national team colleague.
Through the undulations of a long regular season that included the slight distraction known as the World Cup, Seattle and Salt Lake had risen to the top in the West, with Real's turbulence a bit more violent. The Sounders had been consistent throughout, building a record of 13-6-2 (41 points), while RSL soared, then plummeted, and now emerged again to a 10-4-9 mark (39 points). Then came Saturday's opening whistle, offering Real a made shot at what amounted to a six-point swing in the standings.
RSL now has 11 victories and 42 points and first place.
"It's all coming together right now," said Real coach Jeff Cassar. "[We're] getting stronger. â¦ Guys are starting to feel it and smell it."
It took a while on Saturday. Most of the business here came in that second half of a game that started slow. Real's scores stirred within moments of each other, the first in the 53rd minute and the second in the 57th. Mulholland looped a free kick into Plata, who headed a far-side shot past Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei. Then came Mulholland's goal.
Thereafter, the Sounders' Chad Barrett hit the net in the 72nd minute with a bouncing, ricocheting ball in front Rimando, who missed out on his 114th clean sheet, a fact that bothered him, but not as much as the victory felt good.
"We could and should have had that shutout," he said. "That was disappointing. We lost focus for one play."
Displaying mostly patient soccer early on, RSL crossed, chipped and served balls into the face of the goal through the first 45 minutes, and none of them were sent home. Often diminutive forward Plata was in the mix, but nothing ultimately worked.
At the half, Cassar said he encouraged his players, telling them: "We're knocking at the door." He added: "We knew we were going to get stronger."
For its part, Seattle was in large measure quiet, managing just three first-half shots. Dempsey was mostly absent, although at the end of the half, he attempted to head a ball past Rimando, which the Real keeper easily controlled.
On the whole, RSL possessed the ball much more than the Sounders, to the tune of 58 percent to 42.
There were extenuating circumstances, RSL playing without all-time goal scorer Alvaro Saborio, still rehabbing that broken foot, and without the league's second-leading assist man, Javi Morales, who was injured and sick. Seattle played without its second-leading goal scorer, Martins, whom yellow cards had disqualified.
The guys who actually made the pitch presented a decent competition, though RSL clearly earned and deserved the win, setting itself up for a meaningful stretch run.
"Everything's good," Rimando said. "Our vibe is exactly what it should be. We're kind of moving ahead each game."
Seattle's overall prowess notwithstanding, RSL captain Kyle Beckerman had turned his team's focus inward, characterizing pregame the key for his side thusly: "It comes down to what we do, how we execute."
He was right. And, in a big game, Real executed the way a victor usually does.
"Today," he said, "we took a good step forward."
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. Twitter: @GordonMonson.