Real Salt Lake beats Vancouver 1-0 in home opener

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake forward Jefferson Savarino (7) collides with Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder Scott Sutter (23) in MLS soccer action at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Saturday, March 9, 2019.

Sandy • As Corey Baird inched closer and closer to the goal in the 22nd minute, he suddenly fell to the ground. The whistle blew, indicating a penalty. Initially, it appeared obvious: Vancouver’s Jakob Nerwinski caused Baird to fall.

But on at least two replay angles it looked like Baird just dove to the ground without actually receiving contact from the defender. Nonetheless, the referee upheld the call, giving Albert Rusnák the opportunity connect on the penalty. RSL led 1-0 for the remainder of the game.

Baird said he felt the contact from Nerwinski that caused him to fall. When asked what he saw on the sequence, coach Mike Petke demurred a bit.

“I saw Corey get played through, and then he fell down, and then the whistle was blown,” Petke said.

In response to a question from a pool reporter, lead referee Drew Fischer said, “The VAR indicated that the check was complete and the penalty kick was confirmed.”

The sequence may have appeared questionable, but it was enough to give RSL the three points it needed in front of a raucous home crowd. The win gave RSL four points in the Western Conference standings, tying them, for the moment, with FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo, who Real tied last week in the season opener.

By only scoring one goal, Real had to once again rely on its defense to pull it out. Keeper Nick Rimando tallied five saves, and several players blocked shots that were careening in Rimando’s direction. The Whitecaps had five shots on goal and 16 overall.

Baird said giving up more shots on goal against Vancouver may have been a product of wanting to attack more being in front of their home crowd. But with RSL’s 19 total clearances and the aforementioned defensive numbers, the team was able to defend well.

“I think our aim for the season is to give Nicky the easiest year of his career so far,” center back Nedum Onuoha said.

RSL 1, Vancouver 0

• Albert Rusnák’s penalty goal serves as the game-winner.

• RSL wins first home opener since 2015.

• RSL continues its strong defensive play for second straight game.

Petke said he liked the way his team defended, and reiterated the focus on defense because it plays so many road games to start the season. Petke added that RSL had “complete control of the game” in the first half, and was able to adjust to Vancouver’s tactical changes in the second half to hold on to the win.

“From a defense standpoint, it was a good performance,” Petke said.

Petke shifted some things in the attack against Vancouver. Last week against Houston, Baird mostly played on the left wing. But Petke opted to but Baird in the center forward position against the Whitecaps because he likes the way Baird pressures defenses up top.

Starting Baird in that position also gave Rusnák the opportunity to play more centrally on offense, which gave RSL an advantage against Vancouver’s three central midfielders, Petke said.

Against Houston, Baird provided the assist to Rusnák’s goal. He gave an assist of sorts again Saturday, drawing the foul that led to RSL’s lone goal.

“I’m looking to be dangerous every time I hit the ball, whether it’s on the ball or off the ball,” Baird said.

RSL has two consecutive road games coming up — D.C. United and LAFC. Those matchups, both against teams that made the playoffs last season, will further test just how much the team’s road form has improved. Petke said winning games at home will be “extremely important” in order to relieve the pressure on the road.

“If we could continue the rest of the season like we had the first two games — at least a tie on the road and a win at home — we’ll be in pretty good shape,” Petke said.

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