Rio Tinto Stadium used to be a fortress for RSL, but LAFC easily broke through

(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.

Rio Tinto Stadium is not the fortress it once was.

Real Salt Lake has been talking about restoring the stadium’s fearsome reputation since last season. But Saturday’s 5-1 loss to LAFC, an expansion team playing its second-ever MLS game, shattered that notion.

In front of 20,706 fans — the largest crowd at Rio Tinto since RSL hosted Tigres in a 2016 CONCACAF Champions League match — LAFC dominated the home team. It was RSL’s first loss in a home opener, and the most goals the club had ever conceded at home.

“Once we went 2-1 behind, all they did was sit behind the ball,” Albert Rusnák said. “We were pushing it more and more forward, and then every time we lost the ball they were in on a counter-attack. Once you allow these teams to go 2-1 up at your house, it is easy for them to sit back and wait for mistakes.”

RSL’s success at home peaked in 2010, when it became the second MLS team to go undefeated at home for an entire season. When the streak finally ended on May 28, 2011, RSL had gone 29 straight home matches unbeaten, the second-longest such streak in league history.

With the combination of a talented squad and Utah’s elevation, RSL could tire out opposing teams that would spend the game chasing the ball until they had completely worn themselves out.

On Saturday, RSL had the edge in possession, but not because the team was tiring out the visitors. After LAFC grabbed a 2-1 lead in the 33rd minute, it was able to rely on the counter-attack to score, saving energy for those quick bursts. With a strong defensive shape, RSL’s attacking players were forced into spaces where they were outnumbered.

“There’s moments when the guys feel a little bit bugged,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said of the altitude, “but that shouldn’t stop you from trying to play football.”

With each LAFC goal, the stadium grew quieter. RSL coach Mike Petke, who coached the team to a 9-3-3 home record last season, wasn’t his usual animated self on the sideline, standing almost completely still instead.

“What do you do at that point, you know?” he said after the match. “We made a number of adjustments; we sent [notes] out onto the field, to be very clear about certain things. And it just, it was one of those days, I guess. And I feel terrible to say something like that because it just seems dismissive — ‘one of those days’ — but I’m not ready at this moment to analyze this game. It’s that much of a shock to all of us.”