Real Salt Lake beats Sporting Kansas City 2-1, advances to Western Conference final

Anderson Julio and Bobby Wood score for RSL in victory.

Real Salt Lake forward Bobby Wood, center, celebrates with teammates after scoring the winning goal during the second half of an MLS soccer match against Sporting Kansas City Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in Kansas City, Kan. Real Salt Lake won 2-1.(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Kansas City, Kan. • When Real Salt Lake headed to the locker room at halftime down a goal, they were faced with a question. Could the belief that had helped them get this far keep them alive even when facing defeat in a building that holds multiple postseason heartbreaks?

Anderson Julio scored midway through the second half, and Bobby Wood completed the smash-and-grab with a 90th-minute winner that sent Real Salt Lake to the Western Conference Finals and exorcised the playoff demons that Children’s Mercy Park had held over them.

Down at the half, the belief was still strong according to RSL’s Damir Kreilach.

“It’s all about belief,” Kreilach said. “We told each other at halftime that if we score one, we’re going to score the second one and win the game.”

A first-half penalty had them trailing for the first time in 144 minutes of postseason play. Sporting midfielder Gadi Kinda earned a penalty kick after a clumsy challenge from Aaron Herrera. Kinda cut to the end line and while the ball was likely going out of play, Herrera whiffed on the ball and kicked Kinda’s shins resulting in head referee Kevin Stott pointing to the spot. Sporting captain Johnny Russell slammed the ball to David Ochoa’s left while Ochoa dove to his right.

The response from the squad to their first major adversity of the postseason was exactly what the captain hoped it would be.

“At one to zero, our reaction was incredible,” Kreliach said. “But that performance we put on the field in the second half, it was incredible.”

After sitting back against Seattle for the majority of the game, Real Salt Lake was faced with the question of whether or not they could take the game to someone else.

“After being here a few weeks ago I thought we were going to have a little bit more time and space to dictate the game with the ball,” interim head coach Pablo Mastroeni said. “I think we did a good job of that. We took our chances well and more importantly we never opened ourselves up to counter-attacks from a really dangerous counter-attacking team.”

A breakthrough came in the 72nd minute after an initial clearance from the Sporting defense saw the ball land at the feet of Andrew Brody. His teasing ball over the top of the backline was headed home by substitute Anderson Julio.

Real Salt Lake was able to get back to their game comfortably, frustrating Sporting KC by putting numbers behind the ball, taking their time, and milking the clock for every last second. It worked, as the game looked destined for extra time.

After heartbreak in 2013, and 2017 at the hands of Sporting KC at Children’s Mercy Park, Real Salt Lake vanquished their demons in that building with a stunning knock-out punch to yet another Western Conference giant.

Real Salt Lake won the ball at midfield as the clock struck 90 minutes. Justin Meram ran through the Sporting KC defense finding himself with enough time and space on the left flank to look up and see a darting run from Bobby Wood.

“I know Justin likes to cut inside, and I was just hoping he crossed it because I felt like I was in front of the defender,” Wood said.

Meram crossed it, and Wood beat his defender to the ball, touching it past a sprawling goalkeeper to give RSL yet another unlikely result.

Sporting had no time to mount a serious response, and Stott eventually blew for full-time. Immediately RSL players tore across the field to the corner of the stadium to celebrate with their contingent of traveling fans, celebrating the exorcism of some of the most disappointing moments in their club’s history in that building.

“The only people that believed that we’d be in this position are the guys in that locker room, and the guys training back home,” Mastroeni said. “It’s a testament to the group of guys that believed that we can come together and be greater than the sum of our parts. I think that’s a great reflection of the club, it’s a great reflection of the wonderful fans in Salt Lake, and last but not least, [it’s] a great reflection of the character of the guys in the locker room.”

The belief in the locker room is what had guided them to their two unlikely wins, and Kreilach said that the result gives them even more confidence as they head to Portland to face the Timbers in the Western Conference Finals.

“It’s another tough game, another tough away game to Portland,” Kreilach said. “But we’re going to go there to win again.”