Sandy • In the lead-up to Saturday night’s game against the rival Colorado Rapids, interim Real Salt Lake coach Freddy Juarez stressed that coming away with both the Rocky Mountain Cup and a crucial three points were equally important.
And thanks to yet more late dramatics, RSL got them both.
Minutes after Damir Kreilach’s apparent game-winning goal in the 90th minute was disallowed for offsides following a VAR review, Joao Plata and Jefferson Savarino found the net in stoppage time for a 2-0 victory at Rio Tinto Stadium.
The team acknowledged afterward how crucial the result was, as that victory alone momentarily vaulted the team from fifth to second place in the tight Western playoff race.
“Kudos to us for sticking with it. We needed it,” said assistant coach Tyrone Marshall. “… I think we’re in second now — I’ll take a picture of it, screenshot it and save it.”
Following a largely lethargic opening half and a more energetic if still mostly ineffectual second, the turning point of the game came in the 89th minute, when Rapids striker Kei Kamara was red-carded and sent off for a collision in the box.
The combination of going up a man plus the copious stoppage time awarded after Kamara took his time leaving the field proved the spark that RSL needed.
They seemed to have set themselves up for victory in the final minute of regulation, when an odd bounce of the ball in the box wound up at the feet of Kreilach, who launched the ball into the net.
The video review, however, indicated that Savarino was offside, as the 20,384 howled in protest.
The extended duration of stoppage time, however, worked in RSL’s favor, and this time, it would take advantage.
In about the 96th minute of play, Real was on attack when Plata rocketed a shot in the box, which was deflected. He immediately protested that it had touched the hand of Colorado’s Lalas Abubakar, and referee Ted Unkel agreed, awarding a penalty shot.
RSL’s normal PK-taker, Albert Rusnák, ceded the try to Plata, who went low and left, bouncing his attempt past the Rapids’ legendary keeper, longtime U.S. Men’s National Team presence Tim Howard.
It was the first goal of the season for Plata, who came on as a substitute for striker Sam Johnson in the 68th minute.
“He grabbed the ball and asked me if he could take the penalty,” Rusnák explained. “He changed the game in some ways, for us, with his energy. He hadn’t scored in a while. Getting that goal will be huge for him.”
In the 99th, a Rapids turnover and an RSL counterattack culminated with Rusnák dropping the ball off inside to a trailing Savarino, who punched in the exclamation point.
And finally, after a game that saw Real in control for long stretches with its passing but unable to break through, the team could breathe a sigh of relief.
“Tonight, having three points makes a big difference over one point,” Marshall said. “… We have something we’re playing for.”
The team’s postseason positioning was very much on the team’s mind throughout. With apparent top seed LAFC headed for a first-round bye, the next three teams in the table will get to host postseason games.
RSL had little trouble controlling the ball early on — it did have possession nearly two-thirds of the time in the first half.
The problem was, it couldn’t do anything substantial with it. The passing too frequently fell apart in the final third, leading to a dearth of realistic scoring opportunities — by the break, Colorado had advantages of 15-4 in shots, and 4-0 in shots on goal.
So finally getting those scores and coming away with the win was huge for RSL.
“If the game finishes 0-0,” Rusnák allowed, “I’d feel like we lost.”
And with three of the team’s next four games coming on the road, coming away with just a draw at home vs. the beleaguered Rapids would have been a gut punch.
“We have some tough road games coming up, so we needed this win tonight,” Rusnák said. “… Yeah, we’re in second, but with one or two losses, we could be in seventh.”
REAL SALT LAKE 2, RAPIDS 0
• RSL scores a pair of stoppage-time goals from Joao Plata and Jefferson Savarino to come away with both the Rocky Mountain Cup and a crucial three points.
• Real thought it had the winner in the 90th minute, but Damir Kreilach’s goal was disallowed when Savarino was ruled offsides.
• The victory vaults RSL from fifth to second in the crowded Western Conference.