SANDY — During the five months Javier Morales was recovering from a broken ankle, there was a feeling around Real Salt Lake that once the all-star returned, everything would be just fine. All of the ups and downs would magically disappear.
When Beckerman was suspended for what amounted to the final the final month of the season because of a silly head butt, those hopes were put on hold.
In the opening game of the Western Conference semifinals against Seattle on Saturday night at Rio Tinto Stadium, the whole gang was back together for the first time since April and it was easy to see why there was five months of optimism.
Alvaro Saborio scored twice and Ned Grabavoy tacked on a late goal of his own as Real Salt Lake dismantled Seattle 3-0 in front of 17,067 raucous fans to take a commanding lead in the series.
"I don't think we've had the ability to pick our absolutely strongest lineup since the first leg of the final in Monterrey, that's a long time. It's pleasing to put that group out there, and they basically picked up where they left off," said RSL coach Jason Kreis.
The two-game Western Conference semifinal aggregate series now shifts to Seattle on Wednesday at 8 p.m. Real Salt Lake can advance with a victory, a tie or even a two-goal loss.
"Obviously we're very, very pleased with the result, very, very pleased with what the guys put into the match, but we're also very cognizant of it only being halftime," said Kreis.
It was a chippy match early, with both teams clearly trying to set the tone. What it wasn't was a defensive slugfest, and the first game these two-game series often are.
"I thought our spirit was really, really good, and I'll tell you what that's a credit to the crowd, that's the first time in a long time I can remember the beginning of the match coming out and the stands are almost full," said Kreis. "Typically we have to wait 'til close to halftime to get the stands full."
After the bright start, RSL eventually took the lead in the 42nd minute on a great bit of skill from Javier Morales, a great shot from Chris Wingert and the easiest finish of Saborio's career.
Morales' fancy footwork enabled him to play a ball toward Chris Wingert near the left edge of the penalty area. Wingert tracked it down and made a darting run into the box before curling a shot around Kasey Keller toward the far post. The shot appeared goal-bound, but Saborio tapped it in anyway.
The ref briefly conferred with his linesman to ensure Saborio wasn't offsides. It was close, but it was probably the correct decision to allow the goal that put RSL ahead 1-0 shortly before halftime.
Wingert wasn't at all upset that Saborio robbed him of a goal.
"If we just win the series, that's awesome. I could care less. He put himself in a great spot," said Wingert.
Seattle had two quality chances to equalize before the half, but Borchers denied Fredy Montero and then Alvaro Fernandez mistimed a header in stoppage time.
If it hadn't been for Kasey Keller's four saves in the first half, RSL could've easily led by two or three goals. His best save of the half came in the 24th minute on a diving stab on a 15-yard shot from Andy Williams following a great pass from Saborio.
As good as the veteran keeper was throughout the first half, he was helpless to do anything about Saborio's world-class cheeky finish in the 53rd minute.
With his back to goal and Seattle defender Jeff Parke marking him tightly, Saborio redirected Morales' driven cross from the endline with a back heel flick that easily beat Keller. Parke immediately threw his hands up in disbelief as Saborio was mobbed by teammates after putting RSL ahead 2-0.
A minute after Saborio's goal the Sounders were very, very lucky not to lose a man as well when Osvaldo Alonso shoved Saborio in the face. Alonso received a yellow card, but it could've easily been a red.
After losing defender Jamison Olave to a quadriceps injury early in that match, Nat Borchers had to leave late as well with a knee strain. Despite the juggled backline over the final six minutes, RSL still tacked on a late goal as substitute Ned Grabavoy buried a close-range shot.
Heading back to Seattle, Real Salt Lake will be confident after a 2-1 win at Century Link Field on Sept. 10, which snapped a six-game winning streak in all competitions for the Sounders.
"If we spend too much time patting ourselves on the back tonight ... that can put ourselves in a bad place. We have to keep our feet on the ground and say it was a good first half and there's still a second half to play," said Kreis.
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