Los Angeles • Yes, Damir Kreilach scored two goals — one of the karate variety. Yes, Real Salt Lake went on the road, where it won only three games in the regular season, and usurped a statistically better opponent.
But it was defender Nedum Onuoha who on Thursday proved why RSL signed him in September. In Real’s 3-2 win over Los Angeles Football Club, Onuoha was everywhere, batting away balls and putting his 6-foot, 210-pound frame up against LAFC’s attackers, bothering them just enough to cause resets in their offense.
After the stunning victory that advanced RSL to the Western Conference semifinals of the MLS Cup Playoffs, head coach Mike Petke called Onuoha a star. The Nigeria-born defender, who started his second MLS game Thursday in just his third-ever appearance, said it was a “big pat on the back” that Petke called his number in the biggest game of the season.
“It’s nice, but I’d prefer not to be the star and someone else to just score three, four, five goals and we can just have a nice relaxing game,” Onuoha said. “I do appreciate him saying that. It was a vote of confidence because when it came down to it, this was a game which we had to win.”
MLS CUP PLAYOFFS
SPORTING KANSAS CITY AT REAL SALT LAKE
When • Sunday, 8 p.m.
TV • FS1
Onuoha tallied 14 clearances, five interceptions, three defensive blocks and three recoveries, per mlssoccer.com. The other three starting defensive backs — Brooks Lennon, Marcelo Silva and Aaron Herrera — had 15 clearances combined.
Onuoha said the key to RSL’s collective effectiveness on defense simply came down to desire.
“When you’re in a game where you know it’s a must-win game or your season’s over, then the bare minimum you’re going to expect to give is to put your body on the line,” Onuoha said. “It matters. If you get it wrong today, your season’s done. So I think it’s just a lot of commitment and we had something to hold on to.”
With Onuoha and Marcelo Silva getting the start Thursday, that left Justen Glad on the bench for just the second time this season. The first time that happened, Glad was also replaced by Onuoha and Silva — and RSL came away with a crucial victory against the New England Revolution.
Glad said after the day after the New England game that he did not mind giving up his starting spot.
“I’m here for the team and they put in a great shift, got the win,” Glad said at the time. “That’s the most important thing right now.”
Real is now 2-0 when Onuoha appears in the starting 11. While he won’t be actively lobbying Petke and the coaching staff for more starts any time soon, he sees any opportunities this season as icing on the cake after only hoping he would play once he joined RSL.
“The next year — possibly two years — that’s the big thing for me. That’s when I think I can really make a mark,” Onuoha said. “Anything this year has just been a massive bonus.”