Tom Pennington, Getty Images
FRISCO, Texas — 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.
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