SANDY — It's official: Real Salt Lake can finally focus on the CONCACAF Champions League.
And after a 2-1 home win over the streaking Vancouver Whitecaps, the lengthy flight to Costa Rica for Tuesday's match against Herediano likely won't seem so bad.
The win, which gave RSL 42 points on the season, didn't come easy.
Unsuccessful attacks — like a missed flick in the goal mouth by Alvaro Saborio and a rocket by Luis Gil from the top of the 18-yard box that sailed just over the crossbar — littered the first 30 minutes of the game before RSL was able to get on the board.
In the 34th minute, Kyle Beckerman, not necessarily known for his aerial prowess, earned a penalty kick when he went up for a header in the box and was taken down by Vancouver captain Jay DeMerit. Saborio stepped up to the spot and sent his kick into the lower left corner, leaving Vancouver keeper Joe Cannon grasping at air as he dove the wrong way.
"I really felt like we had the energy and the chances there, and we were on top of it," Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis said. "I was really pleased to see us score that goal, and I do think it was a just reward for all the work the guys were putting in."
But while RSL dominated the first 45 minutes — notching seven shots on goal to Vancouver's one — the second half was a different story. The Whitecaps came out firing and used their speed up front to net the tying goal in the 52nd minute.
Camilo Sanvezzo sent a ball over the top of the RSL defense to a streaking Darren Mattocks, who stepped around RSL keeper Nick Rimando and slotted the ball easily into the open net. In all, Vancouver launched 12 shots in the second half and consistently kept the RSL defense on their respective toes.
"It was kind of a weird game, both teams started slow — I think the heat had something to do with it," Rimando said. "We just didn't seem comfortable holding the line after our goal, so we were dropping a lot and giving them a lot of room to drop balls over the top, which created some chances for them."
Fortunately for RSL, Saborio came to the rescue just minutes later, skying onto a cross from Javier Morales, fighting off his defender at the back post and sending a header past a diving Cannon to give RSL a 2-1 lead in the 58th minute.
"The effort from Sabo was spectacular," Kreis said. "To get up that high and hammer it home was simply splendid."
Saborio now has 13 goals this season, his latest being just what RSL needed to notch three valuable points and cushion their second-place spot in the Western Conference standings.
"I'm pleased to see Sabo scoring goals, because for a long time he was doing everything and just getting very unfortunate," Kreis said. "He's in a good run, and we'll try to ride him as long as possible."
Using a makeshift defense — Jamison Olave and Chris Wingert were both on the bench, nursing injuries and resting for the upcoming Champion's League match — RSL's back line bent but didn't break against Vancouver's second-half surge.
Kenny Mansally filled in admirably on the left side, often snuffing out Vancouver's progress and starting RSL's attack from the back line. And Rimando, atoning for allowing a goal earlier, stonewalled Sanvezzo from point-blank in the 71st minute to preserve the lead.
Things got easier soon after, when Cannon was sent off for using his hands outside the box while making a sliding save of Fabian Espindola's breakaway. RSL used the one-man advantage to milk the clock and come out with the win.
Tuesday's game represents the first step toward redemption for RSL, which lost in last season's Champion's League final to Monterrey.
"This is a big, big deal to our club, a big, big deal to our fans, and a huge deal to everybody in the locker room," Kreis said. "Our ownership has stepped up and gotten us a charter flight, which is huge in my opinion, so everybody should be nice and comfortable for the long flight to Costa Rica.
We'll put in a light training session on Monday and be fully fit, ready and focused on Tuesday."
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company