Even with its shaky defending and lack of rhythm in the attack Wednesday night, Real Salt Lake will be pleased to come away from Monterrey with a 2-2 tie, two crucial away goals and all to play for next week at Rio Tinto Stadium.
The game started and ended with Monterrey dominating possession and stringing together more dangerous scoring opportunities. In the first half, especially in the first 10 minutes, Real Salt Lake had trouble coping with the long-ball, counter-attacking style of the Mexicans.
Salt Lake was pressing too high into its attacking third of the field, enabling Monterrey to find Humberto Suazo running in behind the Salt Lake defenders with a simple long ball over the top. Later in the half, Salt Lake allowed Monterrey to possess the ball where it was pressing before, holding a line of confrontation at the midfield line and negating the long ball.
The shape of the back four was poor the entire first half. On Monterrey's first goal, all four defenders were inside the six-yard box when the ball popped out to Aldo De Nigris. Robbie Russell, who had a poor game in general, was caught ball-watching instead of tracking the back-post runner, who calmly side-footed the ball into the back of the net.
Offensively, Real struggled to get anything going all night. In the first half, it relied too heavily on shots from the outside or balls over the top to Fabian Espindola. Salt Lake could not find a way to be more creative in the final third, which it must do to get more quality chances.
Real Salt Lake's first goal was a result of lax defending from Monterrey. Espindola and Nat Borchers both managed to get higher than all three of their markers on the cross. Alvaro Saborio was nowhere to be found on the play, as he was in much of the game.
Saborio found some limited success early in the second half, when he tracked back into the midfield more to find the ball at his feet. In contrast, Espindola's workrate was excellent all game long. He tracked runners back into the midfield, chased the ball across Monterrey's back line and chased balls over the top.
After the break, Salt Lake was put under a lot of pressure. The second Monterrey goal may have crossed the line from a penalty kick, but it was created by sustained pressure from the beginning of the half. Russell was beaten on the outside again, forcing Jamison Olave to come across to attempt an awkward clearance that hit him in the arm.
Andy Williams was effective again in his role as a substitute. Will Johnson moved from the left to the right when Williams came on, but Williams drifted centrally often. He was especially effective in disrupting the Monterrey attack when he tracked back to defend on top of the 18-yard box.
The goalmouth fracas involving Saborio was the turning point of the second half. Salt Lake took the momentum after the incident, which was in the midst of a flurry of corner kicks. Monterrey never put as much pressure on Real as it did before the incident.
Javier Morales' goal was an individual effort that was helped by more poor Monterrey defending. He received the ball in a less-than-dangerous position. There were five defenders between him and the goal and only one Salt Lake player inside the 18-yard box to support him. He dribbled through two players, and the rest watched as he rifled his shot into the side netting.
In the return leg next week, Real Salt Lake must exploit the weak play of the Monterrey defense. It was not tested on the ground much in this game, but if Morales and Saborio can find the ball at their feet within 25 yards of goal, they should be able to effect some combination play that will give the Mexicans trouble.
Defensively, Salt Lake must hold its shape better than it did on Wednesday night. Playing in a familiar environment will help the players feel more comfortable. With two away goals and an aggregate tie so far, Salt Lake is assured of lifting the cup with a shutout next week.
Liviu Bird is a journalism student and soccer player at Seattle Pacific University. Follow him on Twitter @lbird90.
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