Real Salt Lake defeated Rocky Mountain neighbors the Colorado Rapids 2–0 at a sold-out Rio Tinto Stadium Saturday. The rivals’ supporter groups created the Rocky Mountain Cup when RSL joined the league in 2005, to be lifted by the team that wins the head-to-head season series, or, in the event of a tie, stays with the previous year’s winner. RSL has won the first two of the teams’ three meetings this year, meaning they’ll hold onto the Cup for the sixth consecutive season.
RSL had a very familiar starting lineup, minus captain Kyle Beckerman, suspended for last week’s red card. Yordany Alvarez defended and distributed admirably in his place, but anytime Beckerman’s out it becomes easier to realize just how constantly he’s in the middle of things for RSL.
Colorado fielded a new-look starting XI, absent regular starters Jeff Larentowicz (yellow card accumulation), Conor Casey (hamstring), Brian Mullan (coach’s descision), Omar Cummings (coach’s decision) and Hunter Freeman (coach’s decision). RSL’s coach Jason Kreis praised the opponents’ cohesion, saying, “I thought that Colorado was very, very disciplined and very difficult for us to break down.”
But in the end it could have been their unfamiliarity that did them in. RSL’s two goals came from forwards Fábian Espíndola and Álvaro Saborío pouncing on defensive errors by the Rapids, then turning provider to Saborío and Will Johnson, respectively, in the 32nd and 90th minutes. The teams traded chances, but RSL edged ahead in possession (51%) and dominated shots. They took 12, putting 4 on goal, while none of Colorado’s 3 shots challenged RSL GK Nick Rimando’s net.
Besides a much needed confidence boost to RSL’s team defense after last week’s 5–0 drubbing at San Jose, the shutout gave Rimando 132 career wins, second place all-time behind Kevin Hartman’s 176.
The match wasn’t flawless for the home side. They held the ball less and completed a smaller percentage of their passes than usual and they gave up an uncomfortable number of free kicks in their own half. The played more directly, less of the tiki-taka midfield passing that’s earned them respect over the past few seasons. But the team did show a willingness to work for each other on and off the ball throughout the night. Kreis praised San Jose’s blue-collar work ethic after last week’s match, the third time the Earthquakes beat RSL this season, and his team seemed to take the message personally.
“We feel that we are at our best when we are the team that’s really pressing the game,” said Kreis after the win against Colorado, “and that starts with our forwards. When they’re willing to chase down lost causes, when they’re willing to go pressure any of the four defenders, when they’re willing to make 30- and 40-yard runs, that means that everybody on our team gets to step up the field and typically we win it in their half and […] create good chances.”
RSL’s “Team is the Star” mantra is so sound-byte-worthy it’s lost some of its edge, but Saborío’s game-winning goal displayed the idea in some meaningful, if subtle, ways. The most obvious was what Kreis referred to above: Espíndola’s willingness to pressure a routine back pass forced Colorado GK Matt Pickens into a sliding tackle that caromed the ball across the goal mouth. But I liked what followed even better.
Saborío found himself in the uncanny position of having the ball at his feet 3 feet from an empty goal, onside. And he waited. At first it seemed he expected a whistle on the collision that left Pickens sprawled at the corner of the six yard box and Espíndola flying toward the end line. But a gesture with his left arm showed he was waiting for his strike partner, back on his feet, to come collect his deserved goal. Fabi turned and headed toward the center circle, leaving the tap-in to Sabo. These two are trading places as the all-time RSL goals leader, but in that moment it wasn’t the stat that mattered, it was the goal, the lead and the potential 3 points. Their celebration was muted and they headed back to work.
Sabo paid Fabi’s good faith forward an hour later, tackling the ball away from Colorado’s caught-in-possession Tyrone Marshall and tapping it to Will Johnson for the finish and the 2–0 lead.
RSL fans like me swagger a bit less after going 1–4–1 and getting owned by the conference leader in the first half of the season, but keeping the Rocky Mountain Cup and watching our team play quite so together give us reason to keep believing.
RSL (12–7–3, 2nd in West) hosts Vancouver (9–6–7, 3rd in West) this Friday at 7:00 MDT.
(image courtesy of realsaltlake.com)