Real Salt Lake was adamant in Tuesday's Lamar Hunt Open Cup final. And I don't just mean that as an adjective. They were harder than steel and completely immovable, perhaps a little too stiff in their desire to turn away D.C. United.
United spent the first 45 minutes of Tuesday's match without a shot on goal as RSL defended with spirit. It seemed every 50-50 joust left D.C. players bouncing off RSL players with looks on their faces that seemed to be saying, "Who are these guys?"
D.C. wasn't going anywhere, though. Seemingly content to park the proverbial bus in its box, hoping to spring for a counterattack, the tension Tuesday night was palpable. RSL controlled the tempo throughout the first half and D.C. looked as though it was taking itself out of the game, but rope-a-dope doesn't only pertain to boxing.
In the 45th minute, a seemingly tired D.C. United broke through the RSL defense and Lewis Neal threw a brutal uppercut off a broken defensive play, knocking a left-footed stinger past two RSL defenders and into the far corner to put United up 1-0.
When the second half resumed, RSL found D.C. United's end of the field even more fully packed-in than it had been in the first half. D.C. continued its physical play and RSL probed every inch of their defensive line for holes, throwing everyone everyone, including Nick Rimando. But a terrific performance from D.C. keeper Bill Hamid and central defenders Dejan Jakovic and Ethan White kept the score at 1-0 and for the second time in a major tournament final in Salt Lake City, RSL had to watch an opposing team raise a trophy on their home field.
Here's the grades for Real Salt Lake from Tuesday night's game:
Nick Rimando had only one shot on goal to contend with the entire first half. Unfortunately, there was simply nothing he could do to defend Neal's 45th minute far-post goal off a broken defensive play. He played most of the last 10 minutes outside his box as RSL pushed all players forward to create opportunities. His yellow card earned in the final minutes of the game off a body-block 40 yards from goal drew chants of 'Niiick Rim andooo' from the RSL faithful.
Tactics: Even with Chris Schuler back in the 18, Jason Kreis elected to go with rookie central defender Carlos Salcedo Tuesday night. The combination of Beltran, Salcedo, Borchers and Wingert has become de rigueur for Kreis this season. The final 10 minutes of the game, Kreis replaced Carlos Salcedo with Devon Sandoval hoping to even the score with more offense, and the back line was reduced to three.
Chris Wingert played a solid game Tuesday night. He played a number of very good balls into the attack from the midfield, particularly during the second half.
Nat Borchers battled Chris Pontius and Dwayne DeRosario alongside Carlos Salcedo all night Tuesday. The physical play seemed to suit his mood Tuesday night.
Carlos Salcedo clearly relishes contact. Tuesday night he instigated it, repelled it and absorbed blows from D.C. United's physical front line all night long, which included Chris Pontius and Dwayne DeRosario.
Tony Beltran showed off his athleticism Tuesday night as he played box to box against D.C. United's overloaded midfield. He was particularly good going forward to keep RSL's transition out of the backfield fluid. He was also good defensively even with the slip against D.C.'s John Thorrington that gave him room to ping a ball off RSL defenders only to fall to the feet of Neal who had no trouble putting it into the back of the net.
Tactics: With Luis Gil out for the match due to a successful emergency appendectomy Sunday night, Sebastian Velasquez got the start alongside RSL standards Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales and Ned Grabavoy. Grabavoy and Velsaquez tucked inside much of the night, leaving room for defensive backs Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran to play into the RSL attack.
Ned Grabavoy was in a zone Tuesday night. Every move he made seemed a step faster than his defender, no matter who he was matched up against. His first half found him tucked in more than usual against the packed D.C. midfield, but with D.C. loading its end of the field in hopes of escaping with a 1-0 win, Kreis sent him wider in the second half, which opened the game to Grabavoy's strengths, as his near goal in the 52nd minute showed.
Javier Morales was clearly the target of D.C. United's defensive game plan. Take him out of his rhythm and RSL would flounder. The first half, he was too good for United. By the 65th minute, Morales seemed tired. His set pieces were not as good as usual. He was able to punch through D.C.'s defensive wall and RSL had the chances, but as is often the case in soccer, the luck of the bounce was not on Morales' or RSL's side.
Kyle Beckerman seemed tense Tuesday night. Beckerman's played in too many big games in his career for it to be nerves, but he was not at his best nevertheless. But a Beckerman at less than full strength is still better than most MLS midfielders at full strength. By the 60th minute, Beckerman settled into a rhythm.
Sebastian Velasquez was clearly anxious in his first U.S. Open Cup start of his career. The first half his decisions were slightly slower than his feet and he lost possession too often. By the second half, he'd collected himself and his foot skills and effort, particularly just outside the 18-yard box, was very good. He was subbed off in the 69th minute to make way for Khari Stephenson.
Khari Stephenson (sub, 69th minute) was brought on for Velasquez in the 69th minute to combat D.C.'s physical play and in hopes of giving RSL an attacking threat from distance in hopes of breaking the DC logjam in the box. It didn't quite work.
Tactics: RSL started the night with Alvaro Saborio and Joao Plata manning the forward line clearly in hopes of breaking down the DC defensive line with a combination of speed and strength.
Alvaro Saborio returned to RSL's starting lineup for the first time since returning from national team duty after sitting out with a calf strain. He was very good in the air, as usual. His post-up play was strong, and much needed, against D.C. United's physical back line.
Joao Plata tried his best to plague the D.C. defense with his speed and quickness, and while he was able to get in behind D.C. a couple of times, United's physical play and speed of their own on the back line took some of the punch out of his efforts. Plata was subbed out in place of Olmes Garcia in the 57th minute.
Olmes Garcia (sub, 57th minute) Kreis could see the matchup with Plata and D.C.'s back line wasn't working early in the second half. He subbed the bigger and stronger Garcia on to see if the young Colombian could do better.
Devon Sandoval (sub, 81st minute) came on late in the game as a third forward to give RSL a chance at leveling the score. His post-up play was very good and he was good in the air. His near-goal bicycle kick in the waning minutes of the match was his best opportunity, but it also likely blocked Alvaro Saborio from a face-on shot at D.C. United's Bill Hamid.