Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
SANDY — In the build-up to Tuesday's match with Saprissa, Real Salt Lake never shied away from declaring it the most important match since MLS Cup.
Just like it did in Seattle two years ago, RSL took care of business Tuesday night.
It wasn't easy against a very physical Saprissa side, and it doesn't guarantee the club anything with the second leg still upcoming, but RSL is in great shape after its 2-0 victory in the first leg of its CONCACAF Champions League semifinal series.
"If you'd have given us 2-0 at the start of the game, we would've been extremely pleased with it. I think everyone feels happy with it at the end of the game," said Salt Lake midfielder Will Johnson.
The home-and-home, total-goals series shifts to Costa Rica on April 5.
Like RSL, Saprissa enjoys a fantastic home-field advantage. Tuesday night, however, Saprissa got its first exposure to the Rio Tinto Stadium magic.
Spurred on by 16,888 RSL faithful, Alvaro Saborio scored early in the first half and Fabian Espindola doubled the advantage with an early second half goal as RSL extended its home unbeaten streak to 35 straight in all competitions.
"It's our home field, you have to be aggressive, you have to have the right mindset," said Johnson.
For RSL, the goal was always to jump out to a quick lead.
"I was really, really, really pleased with the first 15 minutes with the way we handled ourselves," said RSL coach Jason Kreis. "They did exactly what we asked of the guys to jump all over them. We really gave them no space to breathe."
RSL capitalized on the possession with a ninth-minute goal. Andy Williams started the sequence by knocking the ball into space for Espindola at the left edge of the penalty area. Espindola then passed it across the top of the box for Saborio who buried it with a clinical finish for the 1-0 lead, and his eighth goal of the competition.
The goal came three minutes after a Nat Borchers goal was disallowed after what appeared to be a phantom push in the box.
Real Salt Lake continued to attack hoping for a second goal, but Kreis thought his players started to deviate from the game plan. After the 15th minute Kreis said his team got stretched way too often, which enabled Saprissa to settle into the flow of the game after a shaky start.
The second half was relatively even, but RSL got the insurance goal it needed in the 56th minute on Espindola's breakaway finish.
The Argentine should be credited with a self-assist, too. He knocked down Saprissa defender Robert Wong while going in for a 50-50 challenge, and Williams was right there to corral the deflection and quickly played an over-the-top ball into Wong's vacated space. Espindola ran into the space and had plenty of time to assess the situation, and he calmly side-stepped a defender and buried a right-footed shot for the 2-0 lead.
Nick Rimando helped protect the two-goal cushion with a spectacular diving save in the 63rd minute and then a quick recovery to smother the rebound, finishing the game with six saves.
RSL picked its spots to try and snag a third goal, but Johnson said the team didn't want to get too greedy for fear of giving away a soft goal.
Saprissa outshot Salt Lake in the second half 8-6, but it's leaving Utah without scoring the all-important road goal. In the Champions League, the first tie-breaker is away goals. That puts RSL in great shape heading into the second leg, especially if it scores a goal.
"It was huge. Our objective was to win the game, don't give any goals up and that's exactly what we did," said Rimando.
Saprissa's objective all game was to disrupt RSL's possession-oriented attack by playing very physical. It committed 20 fouls, and ex-RSL player Douglas Sequeira accounted for six of them and one of Saprissa's five yellow cards.
Real Salt Lake's players never let the tactic get under their skins.
"What I am very pleased with our is our reactions tonight. Some of the fouls that happened out there away from the ball could've easily seen reactions from our players that could've picked up yellow cards for retaliations," said Kreis.
Real Salt Lake committed just nine fouls and nobody was shown a yellow card.
On a night when just about everything went right for RSL, it wasn't all good news as Jamison Olave was forced to exit the game at the half with a strained right hamstring.
It seems highly unlikely he'll be available this Saturday when RSL opens the MLS regular season at San Jose.
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