By: Jae Groll
Real Salt Lake looked comfortable against a tricky Saprissa attack to earn a 2-0 victory in the first leg of their semi-final clash in the CONCACAF Champions League. The Tuesday night match was on a perfect Wasatch evening with temperatures around 55° at kickoff. The rain from Monday had no ill effects on the pitch as it was dry and fast throughout the evening with no footing issues for the players.
RSL came out of the gates with the throttle wide open. In the 6th minute a towering header by defender Nat Borchers was disallowed on a dubious foul call. Replays of the call left questions in even the neutral observers in the press box.
RSL was undaunted by the decision and just 3 minutes later on 9′ Fabian Espindola rampaged down the left flank took a pass from Russell and crossed the ball to Alvaro Saborio. His off balance shot to the far post was too much for the Saprissa keeper Bolivar, and Saborio notched his 8th goal in the competition.
Saborio with showed his class and did not celebrate the goal against his former side. After the match he expressed his feeling about his goal. “It’s tough but we have to win and focus on our game.” the Costa Rican striker said.
After the first 15′ RSL seemed to take their foot off the gas pedal for the rest of the half. Coach Jason Kries voiced his concerns about this lack of ambition in his post game comments. “I wasn’t so pleased for 20 or 30 minutes, I think we lost the script a little bit.” Kries said “I think we kinda felt like the game would be over from there and it was far from it.”
On 24′ Saprissa put the ball into an empty net when Nick Rimando was forced out of position but the goal was ruled offside on the initial cross. On 32′ the visitors broke down their left flank and forced a brilliant reflex save from Rimando to keep his side on top at the half.
What ever choice words the RSL skipper had for his players at the break seemed to light a fire. RSL came out the second half the same way they started the game and on 48′ RSL holding midfielder Kyle Beckerman fired a nasty bouncing shot from 37′ that Bolivar could only parry out for a corner.
The hard working Espindola helped to create his own chance on 56′. Espindola with some high pressure forced a wayward clearance from a Saprissa defender that fell right to the feet of Andy Williams near the center circle. Williams quickly played the ball back to Espindola down the left flank who made a quick cutback inside and his shot left the Purple Monster’s keeper grasping at thin air.
Jamison Olave who has been a rock at the back for RSL went off at the half with what has been described as a “knee strain” his replacement the youngster Chris Schuler stepped in and didn’t miss a beat as he and the rest of the RSL back line time and time again stifled any forward movement from the Saprissa attack.
The game was marred with some questionable sportsmanship as the visitors managed to amass 5 yellow cards and 20 total fouls. This will be costly for the Purple Monster as they will be missing Jose Mena, Ricardo Blanco and Douglas Sequeira for the return leg on suspension.
RSL head to Costa Rica on April 5th for the second leg of the semi-final. Saprissa have been dominant at home in the CCL and the 2 goal cushion RSL now hold may not be enough to see them through. Salt Lake also open their MLS schedule later this week with a trip to San Jose on March 19th.
Man of the Match: Fabian Espindola. With a goal and an assist the Argentine striker played with vigor throughout the entire match. His goal was the result of his relentless defense and his buccaneering runs down both flanks caused headaches for the Saprissa defense all night. If he retains this form throughout the season RSL will boast one of the most feared front lines in the MLS.
Great call coach!: Jason Kries once again makes the perfect replacement for an injured defender. Chris Wingert was ruled out and Kries started Tony Beltran at left back. The 2008 first round draft pick did not disappoint. He constantly turned the Saprissa attack back to the inside giving no room down his flank. After the game he credited his improving confidence on the pitch to experience and team chemistry. “Each year I get a little bit more confident, I trust myself a little bit more and I know what my role is on the team.” he added “That also just stems from the team in general. We are such a confident side and we are so good in possession especially here at the Rio.”
Fortress RioT: Once again, for the 35th consecutive match in all competitions, opponents have left Rio Tinto stadium without a victory. 16,888 fans packed in on a week night to cheer their team to another victory. RSL boast at least 3 organized supporters organizations and the cacophony of sound throughout every match at the RioT (as Salt Lake fans adoringly refer to their stadium)is a true home advantage if there ever was one. There was actually a minor stoppage in play early in the game as a virtual river of colored streamers deluged the Saprissa keeper before a goal kick in the 2nd minute of the game.