When RSL earned a draw off RSL rookie Cole Grossman's final-minute heroics against Portland at Jeld Wen Field Wednesday night, the momentum was palpable. The boys in Claret and Cobalt had just lost a whopper against Robbie Keane, er L.A., and fans couldn't help but hold their breath that the excellent streak of play for RSL this season might be entering a down patch.
But Jason Kreis' young team knows how critical momentum is going into the final two months of the season, and whether by sheer will, confidence or the blessing of youth, Saturday night belonged to RSL. As it should have, most analysts would say, with Columbus struggling to dig itself out of the Eastern Conference cellar and into the playoff picture.
Real Salt Lake would have none of that on its pitch, though. RSL dominated possession from the opening kick — almost 70 percent for the night — and Javier Morales was superb in the final third, keeping possession and setting up goals. It was his free kick in the 46th minute that led to arguably Kyle Beckerman's easiest goal of his career. RSL poured in three more goals from Devon Sandoval, Luis Gil and Beckerman again against a clearly frustrated Columbus team that continues to spiral out of the playoff picture.
Chris Higbee is the general manager of DeseretNews.com and occasionally writes about Real Salt Lake.
Nick Rimando had only one shot on target to deal with during Saturday's game. Federico Higuain's close-range worm-burner was nothing Rimando had not seen before, and he parried it away without a second thought. His distribution was, once again, like a clinic. One of the most underrated elements of RSL's possession game is Rimando's distribution from goal.
Tactics: Carlos Salcedo returned to the starting lineup after sitting out last Wednesday's game against Portland per coaches' decision, perhaps to help settle his nerves after getting schooled by L.A.'s Robbie Keane the previous Saturday.
Chris Wingert seemed eager from the opening minutes of the game to get involved in the attack. By the sixth minute, he'd found his way into the box to send a ball into Olmes Garcia, who was alone just above the six-yard box, but could not convert.
Nat Borchers received eight stitches after his collision in Wednesday's match with Portland. Saturday night he still had his head wrapped in gauze like a Revolutionary War vet. It didn't seem to have much of an impact. Borchers was his standard solid self.
Carlos Salcedo sat last Wednesday against Portland. Probably a good thing after struggling mightily against Robbie Keane and the L.A. Galaxy. One of the best things a central back can have is a short memory, something Salcedo seems to have in spades. He was confident and seemed no worse for the wear. Salcedo has been a revelation in his rookie year, when RSL's back line has been troubled with injury. His one knock this season has been his willingness to hit the dirt a bit too early and a bit too often. Saturday, Salcedo kept his feet much better and was instrumental in winning RSL the clean sheet.
Tony Beltran is having the kind of season you hope to have in a signing year. Good thing for RSL brass he's already signed on for three more years. His one-on-one defending may be the best in MLS this season, and his presence on the ball is underrated among defenders. His work along the midfield line in RSL's possession game Saturday night might have gone unnoticed by some of the spectators, but it was one of the reasons for the Claret and Cobalt's domination Saturday night.
Tactics: Jason Kreis has been rotating Khari Stephenson and Luis Gil into the right midfield position. Saturday night was Gil's turn. With Kyle Beckerman back from a yellow-card-accumulation sit, RSL's midfield was back up to full strength.
Ned Grabavoy may be doing the little things better than anyone else on RSL's squad this season, and that's saying a lot given the players with whom he shares the field. It's shown up in his participation in so many of RSL's scoring opportunities this year. It's shown up in his never-say-die attitude on defense, and his fitness is nothing short of spectacular. Grabavoy's play Saturday night was no less than expected. He put tremendous pressure on the Crew's midfield, and was one of the primary reasons RSL found itself in Columbus' half most of the game. He played a key role in all but RSL's final score of the night. Though he didn't earn an assist or a goal, he was clearly RSL's Man of the Match.
Javier Morales may be aging, and it may be more than halfway through the season, but Saturday night was the fittest he's looked, and he was firing on all cylinders. When he has the ball at his feet, especially in the top final third, he's very difficult to stop. This was especially apparent Saturday night as RSL maintained possession supremacy. RSL struggled the first 45 minutes to turn that into goals until with seconds to go in stoppage time, Morales sent a dipping, swerving ball over the wall from 25 yards out on a free kick, and as can happen when you're doing the right things well, the ball skipped by chance off Kyle Beckerman's foot into the goal to put RSL up 1-0.
Kyle Beckerman is like a comforter. Having him in the midfield makes everything better. Perhaps it's the power of familiarity, or perhaps it's just that he's that good (probably both), but RSL just runs much better when he's on the pitch. He did everything right Saturday night, including being in the right place at the right time in the 46th minute when Javier Morales' over-the-wall free kick found his foot while doing nothing more than stand there. Definitely a candidate for Beckerman's easiest goal of his career. Six minutes into the second half, youth found youth as Devon Sandoval scored off an Olmes Garcia cross to put RSL up 2-0. His 89th minute goal was slightly harder than his first of the night, and put the nail into the coffin for Columbus while adding to RSL's record season of 48 goals.
Luis Gil's most exciting quality is his progress. Every few games he shows the tremendous potential that has had fans and the RSL coaching staff nodding their heads these last three years. Saturday night was one of those nights. His defense was excellent and his offensive vision and foot skill had him making positive contributions to RSL's attack all night long. His goal in the 82nd minute proves how good he can be. Watch the highlight. It's worth it.
Sebastian Velasquez (Sub ’80) wasted no time impacting the game as he came on to give RSL a 4-5-1 configuration that clearly confused Columbus in its defensive third. He shows an ability with his feet not unlike a young Javier Morales, and it was just that ability that put RSL in scoring position in the 82nd minute. His possession on the 18-yard line led to Ned Grabavoy's assist to Luis Gil in one of RSL's prettiest scoring combinations of the season. His pass into Kyle Beckerman in the 89th minute would have been an assist had it not barely deflected off a Columbus defender.
Cole Grossman (’86) was subbed on in place of Ned Grabavoy in the 86th minute.
Tactics: With Alvaro Saborio out for the second game in a row with a calf strain and Robbie Findley struggling on the field, Jason Kreis went to his two young forwards of the future, starting Devon Sandoval and Olmes Garcia who have both been in fine form during training and in substation roles for RSL throughout the season.
Olmes Garcia seems to go so full out every sprint he makes you wonder if he'll ever be able to recover. With his head thrown back and his brain thinking only one thing, "ball," he's a lot of fun to watch. Besides that, he has the foot skill to be a handful for any defensive line, especially Columbus' defensive line that's struggled this season, giving up 11 losses with only 8 wins. It was his speed in the 51st minute that put Olmes in the perfect spot in Columbus' right corner where Javier Morales played perfect triangle soccer, pinging the ball into Garcia who timed and weighted his cross into the box for Devon Sandoval to run with it for RSL's second goal. Garcia was subbed off in place of Robbie Findley in the 62nd minute.
Devon Sandoval is more of a post-up forward, but the run of play Saturday night called for more of a possession game, which Sandoval doesn't quite have the maturity to play. He proved that in the 39th minute when his clumsy challenge on Columbus defender Chad Marshall earned him a yellow card, his most memorable moment of the night up to that point. But the 51st minute found him making a tremendous run into the box to be on the end of a perfectly timed cross on the ground from Olmes Garcia, and he had no trouble placing the ball past Columbus keeper Matt Lampson. Sandoval was subbed off in the 80th minute in place of Sebastian Velasquez.
Robbie Findley (Sub ’62) Jason Kreis has pretty good intuition. He knows Findley has a hankering to prove himself lately. He also knows that Columbus is one team Findley typically plays very well against. But once again Findley struggled on the ball, and though he was in the right place so often Saturday night, his touch failed him, and two or three very positive offensive opportunities went lacking as a result.