Sunday, November 7, 2010
RSL's 2010 playoff run
Real Salt Lake ties 1-1, eliminated from MLS playoffs
(by James Edwards desnews.com 11-6-10)
Real Salt Lake's bid for back-to-back MLS titles came to a premature end Saturday night, and the pressure of the repeat might have been the reason why.
After winning Game 1 last weekend, FC Dallas came to Utah for Game 2 knowing it only needed a tie to clinch the Western Conference semifinal series. That's exactly what it got, escaping with a 1-1 draw in front of 19,324 fans at Rio Tinto Stadium. The result clinched the series 3-2 on aggregate.
FC Dallas moves on to the Western Conference final to face either Los Angeles or Seattle, who wrap up their first-round series tonight.
Trailing most of the game, Real Salt Lake tied it late on Robbie Findley's 80th-minute equalizer, but despite a frantic attack in the waning minutes it couldn't put away the series equalizer that would have sent the match into overtime.
It was a bitter end to a fantastic season for Real Salt Lake, which finished with the second-best record in MLS. None of that mattered on Saturday, however, as FC Dallas became the third lower-seeded team to win a playoff series this year.
Real Salt Lake's mentality over the first game and a half of the series was a big reason why.
"I think we played a little tentatively and a little scared because we were nervous to lose, and I don't think you can ever be at your best when you're a little bit nervous and a little bit scared," said RSL coach Jason Kreis.
Those nerves were really only a problem in the first half. After a decent start, Real Salt Lake started to give the ball away in bizarre ways. It led to numerous dangerous counter attacks by a Dallas team that seemed content to defend and try and protect its one-goal lead in the series.
"You struggle with the counter attack when you give the ball away needlessly. If you take better care of the ball you don't have to worry about the counter attack," said Kreis.
Dallas took the 1-0 lead — and 3-1 series lead — in the 17th minute as Brek Shea used his 6-foot-4 frame to outjump RSL defender Tony Beltran and chest the ball in the path of streaking midfielder Dax McCarty, who easily finished.
The early goal compounded RSL's dire situation, and it played the remainder of the first half unsure quite how to react.
After cooling off a bit at halftime, Real Salt Lake came out with a renewed purpose in the second half. So did Dallas keeper Kevin Hartman.
Facing a feverish attack in the second half, Hartman made four quality saves to preserve the necessary result for his team.
"I felt their goal keeper was standing on his head, and he was the difference in the match and the difference in the series," said Kreis.
Two saves in particular were the difference. Early in the second half RSL's Fabian Espindola tracked down an Andy Williams through ball in the box for a one-on-one opportunity with the keeper. He caught Hartman leaning the wrong way and fired a shot toward the far post, but it was deflected off the keeper's toe and over the crossbar.
In the 74th minute he made another reactionary kick save, this time on a deflected shot by Will Johnson.
Hartman wasn't super human though, and RSL's frantic attack eventually led to an equalizer as substitute Robbie Findley slammed home a headed pass from Nat Borchers in the 80th minute.
In the final 10 minutes, and four minutes of stoppage time, RSL threw everything it had forward and came agonizingly close to slipping one past Hartman.
"Tough series to lose. Give credit to Hartman tonight. He made some unbelievable saves — hit the posts," said Williams. "It's just unfortunate that they scored first. That kind of changed momentum. That changed the way we played."
RSL finished the game outshooting Dallas 15-8, including a 10-2 edge in the second half.
In the end it couldn't overcome its own sluggish start.
"The first half we weren't connecting our passes, our passes were a little bit off. A couple steps slower than Dallas in the first half," said Williams. "I guess them getting that early goal we started chasing too much, but second half we settled it down, I think 80 percent of the game was played in their half."
The playoff series win was the first for FC Dallas since 1999.
Real Salt Lake falls to FC Dallas, 2-1
(by James Edwards desnews.com 10-31-10)
Nat Borchers couldn't help but chuckle.
His team had just conceded an 88th-minute goal on a scintillating strike by Eric Avila, and once again Real Salt Lake was on the verge of leaving Dallas a loser.
"It's Dallas. I was actually kind of laughing after the goal. It seems like Dallas has our number when we play away in this stadium," said Borchers.
Avila's wonder goal gave FC Dallas a 2-1 win at Pizza Hut Park in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinal. The two-game aggregate series shifts to Rio Tinto Stadium next Saturday, and RSL is still upbeat about the prospects of a series win.
"Everybody in this locker is feeling positive that we're going back only down a goal," said Borchers. "We're so strong at home and we're really excited for that opportunity."
With as promising as Game 1 started out, it should be returning to Utah with at least a tie. RSL went ahead early on a fifth-minute goal by Fabian Espindola, and it looked as if the club's miserable history of eight losses in eight trips to Dallas might finally be over.
Instead, Real Salt Lake conceded a goal late in the first half and then again late in the second half to fall to 0-9-0 all-time in Dallas.
"When you go away in a playoff match and you score the first goal, especially us, we expect better," said coach Jason Kreis.
Considering that Game 1 of RSL's two previous conference semifinal appearances remained scoreless until at least the 88th minute, Espindola's early goal was quite shocking.
It was all part of master plan.
Kreis figured FC Dallas would expect the visitors to sit back and defend, so he wanted to catch them off-guard early and encouraged his players to knock the ball in behind Dallas when the moment presented itself in the opening 15 minutes.
That's exactly how Espindola scored as he tracked down an over-the-top ball from Andy Williams, and then fought off defender Ugo Ihemelu before curling a shot around Kevin Hartman for the 1-0 lead.
"The problem was we never then got to what was supposed to happen after the first 15 minutes. We were supposed to possess the ball for long stretches of time," said Kreis.
Instead of settling into its brand of possession-oriented soccer after the goal, Salt Lake played chaotic soccer the remainder of the first half. It eventually caught up with the visitors.
"We never slowed down. We just kept this pressure that's too hard to maintain for 90 minutes," said RSL captain Kyle Beckerman.
FC Dallas equalized just before halftime when Jeff Cunningham slipped between Jamison Olave and Robbie Russell and fired a low shot past Nick Rimando despite pleas from Real Salt Lake that Cunningham handled the ball.
"It was a clear handball, but both referees were out of position," said Beckerman. "But whatever, that happens."
After halftime, RSL settled down and escaping with a draw seemed like a good possibility.
Things began to unravel in the final 20 minutes.
Real Salt Lake was reduced to 10 men in the 69th minute when Javier Morales picked up his second yellow card of the game on a high kick to Dax McCarty. RSL didn't have a single red card during the regular season.
Dallas' man advantage lasted all of six minutes, as Atiba Harris picked up a questionable straight red card on an elbow to Will Johnson in the 75th minute. Morales and Harris will both be suspended for Game 2 next Saturday.
Johnson wasn't in the starting 11 because of a hamstring tweak he picked up in training earlier this week, but he entered the match in the 68th minute for Williams.
Despite the fresh legs of Williams and Robbie Findley entering simultaneously, Salt Lake grew increasingly more fatigued and the players' inability to slow things down earlier started to catch up with them.
FC Dallas' desperate attack finally paid off in the 88th minute as Eric Avila scored a wonderful goal less than a minute after coming on as a substitute.
MLS MVP finalist David Ferreira was the instigator of the goal, as he fought off several challenges and foul attempts in the midfield.
"I was behind, so I couldn't really crush him," said defender Chris Wingert. "I tried to get enough of him, I tried to hold him up twice. But credit to him, he stayed up."
Wisely the referee let the advantage play out and Avila made the most of it.
"Ferreira made the whole play, he's got two or three of our players draped all over him and none of us made the game-saving tackle on him or perhaps a game-saving foul," said Kreis.
Now RSL returns home needing a win to have any hope of extending its season.