SANDY — At home, in what the players were calling the biggest game of the season, Real Salt Lake rose to the occasion and played “spectacular” soccer according to coach Jason Kreis.
As has often been the case in big knock-out matches for Real Salt Lake the past few years, simply playing good soccer wasn’t good enough on Tuesday night.
In the final game of Champions League group play at Rio Tinto Stadium, Real Salt Lake needed someone to step and bury a winner — but nobody did.
Despite outshooting Herediano 18-6 throughout a dominant 90-minute performance, at the end of the night RSL had nothing to show for it as the Costa Rican club battled its way to the 0-0 draw.
The draw was good enough for Herediano to win the group with a 3-0-1 record and advance to the CCL quarterfinals next February, while RSL finished second in the group with a 2-1-1 record.
A 1-0 victory for RSL would’ve been good enough to advance.
“I thought we played great. I thought it was going to come, but that’s football sometimes. It gets the best of you even when you’re the better team. Congratulations to them, they played a great defensive game and they came out on top,” said goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
Rimando’s counterpart at the other end of the field was the hero of the night.
Herediano keeper Leonel Moreira made eight saves on the night, including seven in a scintillating first-half performance.
After absorbing countless pressure in the first half, Herediano slowed the game in the second half with textbook defense and time-wasting tactics.
“I didn’t expect that. I expected Herediano to come out and play a little more soccer tonight. I didn’t think they’d muddle up the game as they did,” said Kreis.
Realistically, RSL only has itself to blame after failing to deliver in the first half. It didn’t help that leading scorer Alvaro Saborio was suspended because of yellow-card accumulation.
Arguably the best scoring chance of the night for either team came just six minutes into the match on the chilly and rainy night.
Fabian Espindola found himself in a one-on-one situation with the keeper, and after taking a touch around Moreira he glanced his off-balanced shot at the open net off the top of the crossbar.
Even though Moreira got help from woodwork on that shot, he came up huge later in the half to punch away a Nat Borchers header in the 28th minute and then smother a close-range Will Johnson shot in the 42nd minute.
“I think it’s always going to be a little mentally frustrating when you get some clear chances and you don’t take them, but I think our guys put all the right effort into it. Herediano made it very, very difficult obviously in the second half, literally 11 players always in the penalty box,” said Kreis.
In the second half, Herediano consistently dropped 10 to 11 guys behind the ball to play for the draw, which didn’t make for a pretty match, but it was effective.
Real Salt Lake dodged a major bullet in the 57th minute when Herediano striker Yendrick Ruiz cracked a shot off the left post on a counter attack, a goal that would’ve forced RSL to win 3-1 to advance.
Even though the loss was similar in nature to RSL’s loss to Monterrey in the Champions League final 18 months ago, Kreis doesn’t expect a similar hangover from his team.
He looks back on that Monterrey match was a penultimate game in a history-making opportunity, whereas Tuesday night was simply to advance out of the group play.
Real Salt Lake will try and put the loss in the rearview mirror this Saturday in the regular-season finale against Vancouver, and Rimando doesn’t expect that to be a problem.
“If we play like we did in the first half, there’s no rebounding. Just concentrate on our game and I have no worries about how we’re going to play (in the playoffs),” said Rimando.
James Edward is the Deseret News prep editor and Real Salt Lake beat writer.
Copyright 2017, Deseret News Publishing Company