It was an unfamiliar scenario for a familiar battle.
A Rocky Mountain Cup match not in the Rocky Mountains, but in Orlando? And not only that, the matchup coming four months off due to the coronavirus, when everyone was rusty and not quite in game shape?
But Real Salt Lake’s first game of the MLS is Back Tournament also meant their first win of the season. The team eased their way to a 2-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids late Sunday night, getting goals from their dynamic midfielders Albert Rusnak and Damir Kreilach in a pretty complete performance throughout.
“It felt great to finally be back out on the field and play a competitive game,” Rusnak said. “To start a tournament with a win is huge.”
Not only that, it was a dominant win: goalscoring chances came early and often for RSL. First, Corey Baird and Kreilach played a nice one-two at the top of the box in the sixth minute, but Baird wasn’t able to finish, pinging the ball off the crossbar.
RSL’s first goal came after sustained pressure, as the team dominated possession in the first half. In the 27th minute, Honduran striker Douglas Martinez Jr. whipped in a low cross, forcing Rapids goalkeeper Clint Irwin to intervene. But the ball went right out to Rusnak about 12 yards from goal, who hit the ball towards goal, squirreling between Colorado defenders to squeeze in the net.
RSL 2, COLORADO 0
• RSL dominates Colorado throughout in first game back since MLS season suspended in March.
• Albert Rusnak finished RSL’s first goal on a cross from Douglas Martinez, while Damir Kreilach scored RSL’s second on a low driven shot from outside the box.
• The win moves RSL to the top of Group D in the MLS Is Back Tournament.
Rusnak got another chance at the goal in the second half when Martinez earned a penalty on a horrific backpass and miscommunication from the Rapids backline. But the RSL designated player’s penalty was weak and too close to Irwin, and the followup from substitute Nick Besler was saved as well.
RSL converted on a shot just minutes later. High pressure turned over Colorado again, and Baird laid a nice ball off to Kreilach, who slotted into the bottom left of the Rapids’ goal from 22 yards to make it 2-0.
It was nothing less than they deserved. RSL out-possessed Colorado 54% to 46%, and had six shots on goal to Colorado’s four, nearly all of which came from distance. Kei Kamara, the Rapids’ veteran and usually prolific striker, was kept largely quiet.
On the other end of the field, Martinez, the 23-year-old Honduran who was making just his third-ever appearance for Real Salt Lake, put in a terrific performance from the beginning. RSL head coach Freddy Juarez said that Martinez earned his place in the starting group over more veteran strikers like Sam Johnson and Giuseppe Rossi in training.
“At first, he was on the team that was not going to start,” Juarez said. “But (in training) he was a handful. He was forcing the opponent — us — to run and chase. He was in the box, and he was making runs in behind and he was big and strong to hold it. So we liked what we saw.” It’s fair to say Juarez’s faith in the youngster was rewarded.
RSL’s midfield shined too, with Rusnak and Kreilach providing forward threats while Everton Luiz and stalwart Kyle Beckerman largely stopped Colorado’s attacking play from getting out of control. Beckerman subbed out for Nick Besler in the 67th, and Besler continued Beckerman’s good play.
The win — and its two-goal margin — pushed RSL to the top of Group D, a group that has been considered the “Group of Death” in the early days of the MLS is Back tournament. Earlier Sunday, Minnesota United completely flipped their match against Sporting Kansas City to win 2-1 with two goals in second-half stoppage time. The Minnesota and RSL both have three points at the top of the group, the top two teams are assured of moving on to the knockout rounds of the tournament.
“I mean, to not play a league game for four months and to play today the way we played — all the credit to the team,” Kreilach said. “It was great performance from the first second. Our body language was great and we dominated the game.”