SANDY — The cup-lifting goal eluded Real Salt Lake yet again.
On the biggest of stages in Tuesday’s U.S. Open Cup final, Real Salt Lake’s attractive brand of soccer created, created and created, but in the end produced nothing as D.C. United stunned the home team with a 1-0 championship victory.
It was a result coach Jason Kreis cautioned about, but one that just didn’t seem realistic against a D.C. United team with just three league victories all season.
That nightmare became a reality though when Lewis Neal scored shortly before halftime and D.C. United hunkered down and defended their guts out the final 45 minutes to secure the unlikely trophy in front of 17,608 stunned fans at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Sebastian Velasquez hit the post in the 59th minute, and then Alvaro Saborio had a point-blank header in the dying seconds deflect off the chest of D.C. keeper Bill Hamid and then off the post — heartbreaking moments indeed for the home team.
“For one reason or another we couldn’t bundle the ball over the end line, and unfortunately that’s the only thing that matters, it’s the only statistic that matters, it’s the only thing that anybody will remember that we lost our third championship opportunity in our stadium and D.C. United is the 2013 U.S. Open Cup champion,” said Jason Kreis.
If that scenario sounds familiar, it’s because it is.
Real Salt Lake lost to New York 1-0 in the 2008 Western Conference championship, and then lost to Monterrey in the 2011 CONCACAF Champions League final.
In many ways, the 2013 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup unfolded the same way. RSL conceded a goal in the first half, attacked with reckless abandon in the second half, but in the end came up empty.
“It’s something I can’t really put my finger on how we can get so close and have so much momentum through the majority of the season, and we get to a game like this and we can’t seem to put things together. We can’t seem to get over that last hurdle,” said Kreis.
The loss spoils Real Salt Lake’s hope of winning three trophies this season, but MLS glory is still there for the taking with a month left in the regular season and a match this Saturday against visiting Dallas.
“This team has a choice right now, we can let this thing bring us down and affect our future results, or we can put it behind us and move on, that’s a choice we have to make right now,” said defender Nat Borchers.
Hoping to bury past demons Tuesday, RSL came out flying in the first half, creating quality possession in the attacking half of the field.
Shortly before halftime, the visitors broke the deadlock with a clinical finish from Neal, who was the recipient of a fortuitous bounce off Carlos Salcedo. When John Thorrington’s driven cross ricocheted off Salcedo about 6 yards from goal, it landed at the feet of Neal, who calmly slipped a shot past Rimando for the 1-0 lead.
Ironically enough, Neal was on trial at Real Salt Lake back in the 2012 preseason, but he wasn’t offered a contract, eventually latching on at D.C. United. He’s played sparingly this season because of a groin injury, but he made the most of his opportunity Tuesday.
Kreis said the mood was very upbeat in the locker room at the half, and it showed as RSL immediately came out and put D.C. United back under pressure.
There wasn’t nearly as much space to attack in compared to the first half, though.
“Goals change games. The team that scores first has the higher percentage of winning games because they get to sit back and defend in their shape, we can’t stretch them cause they’re not chasing the game like we are,” said Borchers.
There were still chances, but the post and crossbar — not to mention Hamid — did just enough to keep the clean sheet for D.C. United.
“We’re all over them, we have balls hit the crossbar, balls hit the post. It’s devastating, it’s absolutely devastating not to get something out of this game,” said Tony Beltran.
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