Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
SANDY — Real Salt Lake might be ready to leave the dog days of summer in the rearview mirror.
In a tough defensive effort against a quality attacking D.C. United squad, RSL gutted out a 1-0 victory at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday night, its first victory in MLS play in over a month.
The shutout in front of a sellout crowd of 20,334 was Real Salt Lake's third straight, and should help buoy the club heading into the very difficult home stretch of the regular season.
"It gets us one more step closer to a playoff position, keeps the pressure on the other teams in and around us. It's very tight in our conference at the moment right now," said RSL midfielder Will Johnson, who scored the lone goal early in the second half.
RSL moved back into sole possession of second place in the Western Conference with the victory, three points clear of both Los Angeles — which also won Saturday — and Seattle. The Sounders, however, have three games in hand and play on Sunday.
With four of its final six games after Saturday on the road, RSL coach Jason Kreis said picking up the maximum points against D.C. United was vital.
"There just can't be anything less than the maximum points in those (home) games to give ourselves the best possible chance to not end up in the last two playoffs spots which would put us in some dire straits to have a chance to succeed in the playoffs," Kreis said.
Securing those points didn't come easy for a variety of reason.
Less than four minutes into the match, severe lightning moved into the area and the match was suspended for 84 minutes while the thunderstorms passed.
Once the game resumed in the fourth minute, the attacking trio of Dwayne De Rosario, Chris Pontius and Lionard Pajoy, along with the high pressure of D.C. United's attack, gave the home team some serious troubles.
None of the three finished quite like Johnson, though. His header in the 48th minute on a Paulo Jr. cross was the lone goal in an exciting end-to-end match that featured 27 total shots — eight on goal.
Coming out of the lengthy lightning delay, the game was surprisingly open, with both teams creating numerous scoring chances.
D.C. United was actually the more dangerous of the two in the opening 45 minutes. Pontius had a close-range shot blocked by Chris Wingert in the 21st minute, and then seven minutes later De Rosario cracked a shot from distance off the left post.
Kreis felt his players left themselves exposed defensively in the first half too often by pushing forward, perhaps excessively.
"I think the guys were playing with a lot of angst in the first half. It felt like every time we got the ball in their half, it felt to me like the players felt like they needed to score right away and it didn't need to be that way," Kreis said.
Fortunate not to be down a goal at the half, Real Salt Lake wasted little time seizing the lead for good on Johnson's brave header in the 48th minute. He threw his body in front of Paulo Jr.'s cross, which could've easily resulted in Johnson instead getting punched in the face by D.C. United keeper Bill Hamid.
He narrowly beat Hamid to the cross, though, redirecting the close-range opportunity into the back of the net for the 1-0 lead.
"I felt I was going to get hit, but I still felt I was going to get the ball first. I think most people around the league know me by now, I'm not a guy who's going to pull out when I have an opportunity to score a goal," Johnson said.
Ned Grabavoy's clever back-heel pass to Paulo Jr. freed up the striker to deliver the cross near the end line.
The goal was Johnson's third of the season, and couldn't have come at a more opportune time as Real Salt Lake was looking to shake the doldrums of a frustrating summer. RSL came into the match with a 3-7-2 record in its previous 12 league matches, but Saturday's win should give the club confidence heading into next weekend's difficult match at Houston.
"I was lucky to get on the end of it and knock it in the back. The most important thing from the game, though, is the shutout. Every time we shutout a team it gives us a good chance to win the game," Johnson said.
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