By: Jae Groll
On a cold night at Rio Tinto Stadium, Real Salt Lake easily dispatched a Columbus Crew team that never was able to get in stride by a score of 4-1. RSL struck early and often thoroughly dismantling the Crew defense to become the first MLS team in history to reach the semi-finals of the competition.
After a 0-0 draw in the first leg of the quarterfinal RSL needed to win outright or secure a scoreless draw and go through on penalties to advance. With such stakes on the line nerves were expected but RSL came out composed and played their one touch passing game to perfection.
After a couple wide shots early in the game RSL settled down and began to dominate. A beautiful combo on 23’ opened the score line. Starting at midfield with ChrisWingert to Andy Williams and a one touch pass to Morales. Morales turned and slid a perfect through ball to Saborio on the diagonal run who easily powered a low hard shot past the Columbus reserve keeper.
Real Salt Lake never looked back.
On 36’ another combo unlocked the Crew defense. Andy Williams giving Morales perfect service to almost the exact same piece of grass that Saborio had just scored from. Morales slid the shot far post past the diving keeper.
Columbus would not go quietly into the night just yet. They came out of the locker room and dominated the first 15’ of the second half. Jeff Cunningham, one of MLS’ all time greatest goal scorers fired just wide of the right post on 47’.
Two minutes later the Crew would have their moment. Eddie Gaven lofting a perfectly weighted ball over the RSL back four to the feet of Andres Mendoza and the Peruvian destroyed a left footed half-volley past RSL keeper Nick Rimando.
The Columbus goal woke up RSL. They kicked back into gear and began to control possession again with their trademark passing game.
On 64’ Espindola headed hard off the corner kick but straight at the keeper.
On 68’ Crew keeper Ray Burse made a magnificent save on a Saborio header that looked surely to be destined for the back of the net.
On the ensuing corner Chris Schuler rose high to power a header off the crossbar.
RSL coach Jason Kreis pulled Saborio for Paulo Jr. on 71’ and Paulo Jr. shortly paid dividends on 77’ he cut back a soft ball to the top of the box, the onrushing Morales fired a low hard shot into the bottom left corner to all but seal the victory.
The icing on the cake came in the last minute of stoppage time when Andy Williams perfectly placed a free kick into the top left corner from 24 yards on the left angle.
The win sees Real Salt Lake into the semi-finals of the CONCACAF Champions League. They are the first MLS team to ever advance this far into the tournament.
After the game coach Kreis voiced his pre-game concerns that the team would show some early nerves saying “I was nervous that the guys would come out nervous. That obviously wasn’t the case.”
RSL extended their home unbeaten streak to 34 games in all competitions and sent a warning shot to the rest of the MLS. Their silky passing game was as good as it has ever been and the team showed no rust after the awkward draw in Columbus.
Real Salt Lake continue CCL play on March 15th in Rio Tinto against either Saprissa or Olimpia who play later this week.
Player of the Match: Andy Williams without a doubt gets top honors tonight. He controlled the midfield on both offense and defense finishing the game with 2 assists and a beautiful goal in second half stoppage time on a free kick. Even Javier Morales echoed these sentiments post game saying “For me, Andy was the best player on the field today.”
Great Call Coach!: Jason Kries’ decision to start youngster Chris Schuler in place of a suspended Nat Borchers proved to be key. Schuler played with confidence throughout and paired with Jamison Olave to stymie virtually every Columbus attack. When asked about why he went with Schuler Kreis said “Throughout training sessions on Friday and Saturday Chris stepped forward.” As for his feelings about the defenders play on the evening he had only 3 words “Excellent, excellent, excellent.”
Foul Weather Fans: An impressive turnout of 15,405 in the frigid conditions had the RIOT rocking all game long. With that kind of passion emanating from the stands how could the RSL players not respond with a performance to be remembered.