SANDY — 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.