Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah
SANDY — Real Salt Lake can start making travel arrangements to Central America.
It won't know whether it's heading to Costa Rica or Honduras until tonight, but RSL officially advanced to the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals on Tuesday night with an emphatic 4-1 victory over Columbus at Rio Tinto Stadium.
RSL didn't look anything like the team that notched zero shots on goal in the first leg of the quarterfinal series last week. Instead, spurred on by a passionate crowd of 15,405, it played like a team in midseason form.
"People were knocking our attack a little bit, but obviously we showed we're still a pretty good attacking team," said RSL midfielder Will Johnson.
There was definitely some pressure on RSL heading into the second leg after a scoreless draw in Columbus last week, and much of that pressure was self-inflicted.
Throughout the group stages last year and then this past offseason, RSL's management did a lot of talking about how important the Champions League was to the franchise.
"To be completely honest, I was a little concerned coming into the match because we've been talking a lot about it and what we've managed to do is put ourselves under a tremendous amount of pressure. We really raised the level of expectations for ourselves," said RSL coach Jason Kreis.
Without a suspended Nat Borchers in the lineup there was even more reason to be concerned, but Kreis' anxiety was put to rest fairly early. RSL came out with a positive mentality from the opening minute, and the result was a dominating performance in spite of a 15-minute lull to start the second half.
Javier Morales and Andy Williams were magicians in the midfield, combining for three goals and three assists.
"With two players like that on the same pitch on the same team having that kind of night, you're most of the time going to walk out with a positive result. Those guys were truly special," said Kreis.
Real Salt Lake will now face either Saprissa (Costa Rica) or Olimpia (Honduras) in the CCL semifinals. The second leg of that quarterfinal series is tonight, and Saprissa owns a 1-0 lead. Regardless of the opponent, RSL will host leg one of the semifinals on March 15. The second leg will be on the road between April 5-7.
"It's another step in the right direction, positive step for this club. It was a fantastic night. We'll enjoy the night and look forward to the semifinals," said Johnson, who had a wicked shot bang off the right post in the 13th minute.
RSL eventually opened the scoring on a wonderful bit of skill from three different players in the 23rd minute. Williams cleverly flicked a ball to Morales, who then played a precision through ball to Alvaro Saborio. The Costa Rican striker did what he does best, buried the ball for the 1-0 lead — his seventh goal of the competition dating back to last year.
Thirteen minutes later Williams and Morales linked up again, with Williams supplying a perfect pass into the box to an unmarked Morales, who calmly slotted it home to double RSL's advantage.
Despite such a dominant first half, things got a bit scary early in the second half when Columbus pulled a goal back on a curling right-footed shot by Andres Mendoza in the 49th minute.
The Crew continued to put RSL under pressure knowing that a second goal would not only tie the game at 2-2, but put them in the driver's seat for advancement because of the away goals rule.
"We had a bit of a letdown at the beginning of the second half, but then put the foot back on the gas and finished off the game," said Johnson.
Chris Schuler, a surprise starter in place of Borchers, nearly tacked on a much-needed insurance goal with a powerful header off the crossbar in the 68th minute.
RSL continued applying the pressure though and Morales finally put a rocking Rio Tinto Stadium at ease in the 79th minute as he slotted a shot from the top of the box through traffic and past a diving keeper for the 3-1 lead.
Fittingly on a night when he and Morales were at their best, Williams hammered home a scintillating 30-yard free kick that Columbus keeper Ray Burse Jr. had no hope of saving.
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