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Real Salt Lake embarrassed by expansion LAFC in home opener, 5-1

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake vs. Los Angeles Football Club, MLS soccer at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Saturday March 10, 2018. Real Salt Lake forward Joao Plata (10) scores in the first half.

Sandy • Real Salt Lake coach Mike Petke cleared his throat and pulled the microphone closer during his postgame news conference.

“Why weren’t we able to adjust this game?” he murmured.

As he repeated the question he gazed off into the distance, searching for an explanation for what happened. But it was too early. Minutes after walking off the field, a 5-1 loss to expansion club LAFC in the books at Rio Tinto Stadium, he hadn’t had enough time to piece together what had gone wrong.

So instead, he apologized.

“I apologize to my owner,” Petke said. “A lot of places in the world, I’d either be fired right now or I would resign. … It’s embarrassing, and it starts from the top. I apologize to the fans who came out here for this. End of the day, it’s my job to get the team ready to play and put the effort in. That’s my job description, and I did not fulfill that today.

“… It was an anomaly, it was not representative of who I am as a person, as a coach. It’s not representative of who this organization is, it’s not representative of who these players are.”

There are six words and phrases written in large block letters about the players lockers at Rio Tinto Stadium. One of them — resilience — is what RSL will need plenty of to make sure what happened Saturday is an anomaly.

It had started off well, too. What more could the team ask for out of the first 20 minutes of the home opener than to take a 1-0 lead at home?

Joao Plata had collected a rebound off his own penalty kick, which was knocked away by LAFC goalkeeper Tyler Miller, and drilled the second chance the other way.

“Then all of a sudden,” RSL midfielder Albert Rusnák said, “everything just falls apart.”

RSL’s downward spiral began with the equalizer from one of LAFC’s brightest stars, 20-year-old Uruguayan star winger Diego Rossi.

Newly acquired midfielder Benny Feilhaber, long a thorn in RSL fans’ existence, received the ball from Mark-Anthony Kaye on the left side and made one more pass to complete the crossfield switch in the 30th minute. After Marco Ureña’s first touch, Rossi was able to get behind RSL left back Demar Phillips and receive a pass from Ureña, slipping his shot past a diving Nick Rimando.

Three minutes later, LAFC doubled its score. Steven Beitashour made a run behind the defense, and Blessing flowed to set a two-on-one against Rimando. A Beitashour pass and Blessing shot later, LAFC led 2-1.

“Today nothing was good,” Rusnák said. “The defending wasn’t good. The attacking wasn’t good. The movement wasn’t good. We were second to everything.”

LAFC piled on in the second half with a goal by Feilhaber in the 47th minute, then Rossi scored his second in the 81st minute. Mexican national team star Carlos Vela’s goal in the 86th minute punctuated the blowout.

By the time the final whistle blew, the fans who began the match on their feet, with the beating of the drums behind the goal matching their up-tempo spirits managed a few boos and scattered whistles from a shocked gathering.

That same shock could be found in players’ eyes after the game. This is the second consecutive season RSL has started with a draw, then a loss. Last year’s first two games turned into a five-match winless streak that cost Jeff Cassar his job.

“I don’t really have an explanation for what happened yet,” Rusnák said. “But it was just horrendous. If I’m one of the fans I’m thinking about if I’m going to come to next week’s game or not because it’s just not acceptable for a home opener.”

Next week’s game also is at Rio Tinto, and it promises to be an emotional one. The visitors will be the New York Red Bulls, the team Petke was a legend for as a player and coach before being fired in 2015.

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