By: Rees Linn

Eric Avila bagged an 88th minute wonder-strike to lift Dallas to a 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake in the first leg of the Western conference semi-finals on Saturday.  The young supersub’s goal ensures that Dallas doesn’t need to pull off a win in next week’s away leg to advance to the conference finals.

The opening five minutes of the match served as a reminder that FC Dallas was making it’s first playoff appearance since 2007, and their nervy opening culminated in a 5th minute goal from Espindola.[picappgallerysingle id=”10093032″]

The crafty striker slipped in behind an out of position Ugo Ihemelu, pushed towards goal, and cut inside before burying a beautifully driven ball past Kevin Hartman to make give RSL a one goal lead. It was the worst possible start for a Dallas team short on confidence after losing their last two matches of the regular season.

Nerves eventually settled, and Dallas began linking passes into the midfield, but the high, organized line of RSL did well to limit passing lanes and keep the ball from getting into David Ferreira.

It wasn’t until midway through the half that Dallas began finding space in the wide areas around the talented diamond midfield employed by Jason Kreiss. Jair Benitez, and Marvin Chavez both terrorized the right side of the RSL backline through the end of the half, and early services into the box created problems for Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers.

Jeff Cunninham, who replaced the injured Milton Rodriguez in the 31st minute, leveled for the hosts with a 44th minute strike. The forward received a deflected pass on the edge of the box before turning and wriggling past several defenders to finish past Nick Rimando.

Real Salt Lake came out in the second half with a renewed commitment to playing positive football, and both teams went to work trying to put their stamp on the match. The game took an incredible turn in the 70th minute when Javier Morales was sent off after receiving a second yellow card for delivering a high boot to the face of Dax McCarty. Five minutes later, Atiba Harris received his marching orders for leading with his elbow on a header against Will Johnson.

Initially, both teams appeared to be pushing for the win, but towards the final ten minutes it looked as though Salt Lake was content to wind down the clock. The draw looked inevitable until, in the 88th minute, David Ferreira found the ball near midfield. Incredibly, the Columbian danced through several defenders before touching the ball to Avila. Avila took two purposeful touches towards the edge of the area before delivering an absolute cracker past Rimando.

The win sets up what should be a fantastic second leg to be played in Salt Lake City next Saturday. The spirit and confidence of a Dallas club that looked to be stumbling into the postseason should be somewhat revived, and Salt Lake will know that they’re one of the strongest teams in the league when they’re at home. Given all of the injuries and suspensions hampering both clubs, the contest could depend on who’s available on the benches, and luckily for Dallas, at least one of those bench players has already shown his capabilities.

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