How Diego Luna and Zac MacMath saved RSL’s season with thrilling victory on penalty kicks

Real Salt Lake beat Houston on penalty kicks and forces a deciding Game 3 on Saturday on the road.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake midfielder Diego Luna (26), celebrates with Real Salt Lake defender Justen Glad (15) and defender Bryan Oviedo (3) after kicking the winning goal during a shoot-out, in MLS soccer action between Houston Dynamo and Real Salt Lake, at America First Field, in Sandy, on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023.

Sandy • Zac MacMath handed the ball to Diego Luna before the 20-year-old Real Salt Lake midfielder stepped up to take the final penalty kick of the shootout. If Luna made it, RSL would force a third and deciding game against the Houston Dynamo.

Luna took the ball and gave a simple, almost hubristic statement.

“Let’s go to Houston,” Luna told MacMath.

And to Houston RSL goes.

RSL beat the Dynamo on penalties, 1-1 (5-4), in Monday’s Game 2 of the best-of-three first round Western Conference playoff series at America First Field. Luna scored the fifth and final penalty kick that secured the win, and MacMath, the goalkeeper, saved Houston’s first penalty attempt.

Game 3 is in Houston on Saturday at 4 p.m.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake defender Justen Glad (15) and Houston Dynamo forward Corey Baird (11), in MLS soccer action between Houston Dynamo and Real Salt Lake, at America First Field, in Sandy, on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023.

Coach Pablo Mastroeni had asked Luna if his preference was to shoot fourth or fifth in the penalty order. Generally, a soccer team’s best penalty taker shoots first, second or third. Luna chose fifth, he said, for moments exactly like the one that transpired in the clutch on Monday night.

“I literally planned that in my head and that’s the vision that I saw,” Luna said.

The Dynamo had beaten Real Salt Lake three straight times coming into Monday’s game. So at some point, the law of averages had to fall in RSL’s favor, right?

“I think the mentality and the way you set yourself up will tend to lend itself to creating more chances, which I think then brings the law of averages in your favor sooner than later,” Mastroeni said Sunday afternoon.

Houston Dynamo defender Teenage Hadebe, right, defends against Real Salt Lake forward Cristian Arango (9) during the second half of an MLS playoff soccer match Monday, Nov. 6, 2023, in Sandy, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

That mentality showed itself particularly in the second half. With RSL down 1-0 in the second half, Cristian “Chicho” Arango subbed into the game in the 55th minute. He had been dealing with a hamstring injury, Mastroeni said Sunday afternoon, and hadn’t played in about a month.

As soon as Arango checked in, RSL started becoming dangerous. They had two shots on goal in the span of a minute that were saved by Steve Clark. Arango tried to beat Clark standing too far off his line, but his floated shot missed wide left.

That constant pressure on the goal gave RSL the momentum to draw the foul that led to the game-tying goal. Jefferson Savarino put away a golazo from about 25 yards on a free kick to tie the game 1-1 in the 70th minute. RSL drew a foul right near the 18-yard line a couple of minutes later, but Brayan Vera’s shot sailed over the crossbar.

Houston struck first and put Salt Lake on its heels. RSL defender Justen Glad got hit with a yellow card for committing a foul in the box. MacMath saved Amine Bassi’s initial penalty shot, but Bassi scored on the rebound for 1-0 Houston lead in the 28th minute.

But luckily for RSL, that wasn’t the first penalty shot MacMath would save. Mastroeni said he coached MacMath when he was in Colorado, adding that the goalkeeper does a good job reading a shooter’s hips and approach.

MacMath said he wasn’t thinking in the moment when the first penalty kick was coming to him. He did joke, though, that his wife’s advice on penalties is simply, “Stay in the middle.”

“I give a lot of credit to her for that idea,” MacMath said.

RSL lost the first game of the series to Houston, 2-1, on Oct. 29. Now in a do-or-die situation on the road, RSL will prioritize rest and recovery after an emotional win and short turnaround.

But there’s a palpable amount of confidence emanating from the RSL locker room right now.