SANDY — Fans may have seen a glimpse of the future Saturday night.
Veterans Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman and Alvaro Saborio were away on national team duty for the United States and Costa Rica in preparation for this summer's World Cup.
Filling in for them were second-year striker Devon Sandoval, second-year midfielder Cole Grossman and second-year goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, and all were instrumental in Saturday's 2-1 over the Colorado Rapids at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Sandoval played very well and earned a second assist on a Joao Plata 24th-minute goal and earned the PK instrumental in Morales' second, and game winning, goal. Attinella made several fine saves to give RSL the win.
RSL scored again the second half when Javier Morales earned his fourth score of the season from the penalty spot off a Sandoval-earned penalty in the box.
But once again, RSL found itself flagging in the middle of the second half, giving Colorado too much hope. Attinella's quality saves in the 69th and 73rd minutes seemed to shock the Claret and Cobalt back into action and from then on it felt like Saturday would be RSL's night.
But an 83rd-minute Colorado goal made things interesting again.
Attinella will likely be Real Salt Lake's starting goalie for the next two months. With Rimando named to the USMNT 30-man roster earlier this week and leaving for Palo Alto, California, for pre-World Cup camp, Attinella is one of three fill-ins for RSL's national team players.
Attinella didn't have much to do Saturday thanks to excellent play in the midfield and on the backline, but his textbook save in the 46th minute did keep the sheet clean going into the half.
Attinella had two missed punches that good defending on one, and good luck on the other kept Colorado from getting back into the game and even possibly tying it. Good thing Attinella had some killer stops to atone for the mistakes late in the second half. Sadly, his set-piece miss in the 84th minute let Colorado back into the game.
Chris Schuler returned to the pitch Saturday night to give Real their first team backline once again.
Tony Beltran was as comfortable in the attack Saturday as he's been all season. His crosses were standard fare, but his passing around the box created several dangerous scoring opportunities. Beltran was instrumental in RSL's scoring, but he was also an important contributor to its clean sheet at the half.
Chris Schuler brings so much to RSL's defense. His size and strength are apparent on every play in which he's involved. His passing is near 'laser-guided,' and to have that level of service out of the back line to Real's midfielders and forwards, is a great advantage.
Nat Borchers was standard Borchers: all nasty competitor. He clearly has had the mindset all year that his No. 1 keeper was on his way to the World Cup and it would be up to him to leave Attinella as few shots to save as possible since RSL's defense has been one of Major League Soccer's elite goal-stopping units all year.
Saturday night Borchers, along with Schuler, got their opportunity to play in front of Attinella for the second time this season. They did well in the flow of play, but set pieces appear to be an area that the trio will need to work on.
Chris Wingert rarely unleashes, but the 17th minute saw RSL's best attempt so far in the game as Wingert blasted one from 35 yards out that Colorado's Clint Irwin did well to turn away. His defense was spot on, Saturday as well, including the chest-out in the 56th minute that kept an Attinella miss from finding Deshorn Brown alone in front of the goal.
With Beckerman having been called up to the 30-man USMNT World Cup roster, Cole Grossman will have an opportunity to show his mettle, most likley for the next couple of months. Most pundits believe Beckerman is a shoe-in for the 23-man roster to be named June 2. Luke Mullholland continues to score goals, get assists and keep a rehabbed Luis Gil on the bench.
Luke Mullholland has been not only one of the surprise signings for RSL this year, but for the entire league as well. He's the fourth-leading scorer for RSL with four goals, and is tied with Beckerman for assists, with two apiece. Saturday night was another solid performance for the NASL product.
Javier Morales earned his team-leading fifth assist Saturday when he found Plata for the home side's opening goal. He earned his fourth score of the last two games and the season in the 50th minute when he sent a PK decisively into the upper netting. His yellow card for taking a dive in the box in the 64th minute was the only black mark on an otherwise stupendous performance. Man of the Match.
Cole Grossman was shaky filling in for Beckerman. Not totally unexpected when considering that Saturday was his first start this seasons. His yellow card in the first half was a newbie mistake, and sometimes his decisions were a little more dragged out than we're used to seeing with Beckerman. Too many passes were dangerously off target, and his positioning will need some work if RSL coach Jeff Cassar intends to make him Beckerman's official replacement during World Cup play. Saturday was a bit of Grossman's baptism by fire.
Ned Grabavoy is exactly the sort of soccer player coaches love: consistent, gutsy and indefatigable. He was inches away from RSL's second goal in the 30th minute, but for the second game in a row, went right at the keeper in a 1-1 situation inside the box.
Luis Gil (Sub 89th) subbed for Plata.
John Stertzer (Sub 92th) for Morales.
Sebastian Velasquez (Sub 95th) for Mullholland.
Sandoval filled in for Saborio who is on Costa Rican National Team duty. Plata filled in beside him giving RSL the familiar post-up and lightening tandem Saborio brings beside Plata.
Devon Sandoval is surprisingly deft. His joint assist in the 24th minute was eye-opening as he brough a lovely pass from Beltran down with one foot and touched it right into Morales' run to make his assist to Plata fluid and simple — just like it's been coached since UYSO. His extra effort in the 50th minute going after a ball in the box only to be plowed out of the way by Irwin, earned RSL an opportunity at the spot, which Morales sent into the top netting for RSL's second goal.
Joao Plata continues to be RSL's secret weapon, and not just because his diminutive size allows him to hide amongst the giants of most opponents defensive lines, but because he just finds ways to score as well. His 24th minute goal was textbook — for everyone involved. Beltran started some beautiful link-up play with a deceptively tough ball off the bounce to Sandoval who deftly touched it to Morales who led Plata who calmly slotted the ball far-post for RSL's opening goal.
Chris Higbee is a former general manager of DeseretNews.com who continues to write about Real Salt Lake.