Here comes Real Salt Lake and its youngsters: RSL tops West-leading FC Dallas 2-0

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake hosts FC Dallas, MLS soccer at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Saturday July 7, 2018. Real Salt Lake forward Jefferson Savarino (7) and FC Dallas midfielder Victor Ulloa (8).

Sandy • Birthday boy Albert Rusnák got the goal, and with it some redemption from Wednesday night’s embarrassing penalty kick miss. But Saturday night was another chapter featuring Real Salt Lake’s young, fearless and savvy attacking players.

That’s the case these days, it seems.

On any given night, it can be any given youngster, which is, after all, part of this grand long-term plan. On Wednesday, it was rookie forward Corey Baird again proving why he’s the ongoing spearhead of the RSL attack. On a blistering hot Saturday evening in the 2-0 win over FC Dallas in Sandy, it was Sebastian Saucedo. The 21-year-old from Park City won’t lead the scoresheet when RSL looks back to study its 34-game slate, regardless of how this 2018 campaign plays out.

It was Saucedo, however, who showed once more why he’s on Mike Petke’s starting lineup card and has maintained that position since late May. Composed, in control and never afraid to try the spectacular, Saucedo continues to validate why he’s on the left side of the RSL formation in place of Joao Plata.

The match against FC Dallas broke an MLS record, featuring for the first time in league history, a total of 10 homegrown academy talents to start between the two academy-first franchises. So among some of the brightest youths in MLS, Saucedo’s star was the easiest to spot. Since scoring his first RSL goal in the 1-0 win at Seattle on May 26, the dynamic playmaker has been part of the club’s upswing in the Western Conference standings.

Including the start against West-leading FC Dallas, Saucedo has started six of the last seven RSL matches. The one match he didn’t start — a 2-0 win at home against the Sounders on June 2 — he came on to replace Plata, who left with a rib injury. Saucedo’s refusal to quit on a loose play in the box, lunging toward the ball when it came within his vicinity, earned a penalty for RSL in the ninth minute of Saturday’s match when FC Dallas’ Kellyn Acosta wiped out Saucedo.

Two minutes later, Rusnák drilled the penalty.

Replacing a talent like Plata full time, as it appears Saucedo has for the time being halfway through the season, is a feat. The 26-year-old Ecuadorian, who has three goals and two assists in 2018, is third all-time in RSL’s scoring history (43) and is second in assists (42), but has battled injury and inconsistency throughout the year.

Saucedo, who scored his first home goal for RSL Wednesday, is feeling it as of late.

“I think the opportunity from Mike and the coaching staff,” Saucedo said of what’s changed in the last two months. “I think obviously you can go from scoring a goal to going on the bench, but I think that also gave me a lot more confidence going into other games. Like, ‘You know what? I can do this, I can help the team in any other way to be successful.’”

All you had to do is watch the last two home matches to see how his ability on the ball, his desire to test the respect of defenders, to fire on goal when given a sliver of daylight, has played such a massive part in not only his personal rise, but RSL’s rise up the West standings. His partnership on the left side of the field with childhood friend Danilo Acosta has been solid, too. And sure, there isn’t a shot that “Bofo” isn’t thinking of taking, which might be maddening at times, but it’s also why he’s in there.

“I’m not going to say it’s been showing in all of these games that have passed by,” Saucedo said,”but I try to work my butt off with or without the ball to be able to help the team in any way.”

It took a spectacular full-extension, two-handed save from FC Dallas goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez to keep Saucedo’s left-footed shot from 25 yards away from curling into the top corner of the net. When FC Dallas no longer allowed RSL the courtesy of owning the game, a different role was demanded of Saucedo, who was sprinting back in defense, aiding Acosta on the left side of the field.

“He’s getting in the rhythm of playing week-in, week-out,” Rusnák said of Saucedo. “It’s a different role than what he has now compared to maybe earlier on in the season when he was coming off the bench trying to make an impact. He has now a full game ahead of him, so he doesn’t have to do magic in the first 10 or 15 minutes. He just has to be smart and I think he’s getting better and better every game.”

Petke eventually overhauled RSL’s look in the 72nd minute, going a bit more defensive, which meant Saucedo came off. On his jaunt off the field, Saucedo jabbered with Kellyn Acosta, was thanked by the 17,000-plus fans in Rio Tinto Stadium and there waiting for him clapping his hands and ready to hand out a hug was his head coach.

“I’m not ready to say something’s clicked for Bofo,” Petke said. “What I will say the shot, the chance, was always there for him to take. While he’s far, far, far from the finished product, which is a compliment to him, he has grown up a bit in the last couple of months.”

For the second straight match, substitute Luis Silva scored the exclamation point in extra time, a simple feed from Jefferson Savarino in the 91st minute, to put cease the nerves and nail-biting around Rio Tinto Stadium.

All 5-foot-7 of Savarino also bailed RSL out twice Saturday with two goal-line clearances to keep FC Dallas out of the net. Petke said he doesn’t give out “game balls” to players after performances, but Savarino got his Saturday, further emphasizing how deep with youth this franchise is.

So here come RSL and its batch of youngsters, who twice in a week, beat the top two teams in the conference and showcased why this club could be one to reckon with in the last few months of the season.