SANDY — Real Salt Lake took another positive step forward on Saturday night in what has become a methodical season-long process to evolve and adapt without all-star midfielder Javier Morales.
Beating FC Dallas might have been the most important step yet. It proved that not only can RSL execute a game plan nearly flawlessly, but it can do it against a quality opponent too, not just Vancouver and Toronto.
RSL got the job done the old fashion way on Saturday, keeping possession and then fighting to win it back after losing it.
As Will Johnson said, the plan was to "keep the zero and we'll find a way to get a goal."
It took a Kevin Hartman gaffe to finally get that goal, but they all count the same.
"We made it a big area of focus and emphasis on keeping the ball tonight," said RSL coach Jason Kreis.
Having played Dallas five previous times in the past year, Kreis said RSL's coaching staff had a pretty good idea what to expect at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday night. It was all about limiting the counter-attacking opportunities.
First and foremost, Kreis grilled home the importance of maintaining possession and not giving it away cheaply. Secondly, he stressed with his players the need to win the ball back after losing it.
FC Dallas wingers Brek Shea and Jackson are two of the more dangerous attacking players in MLS, particularly on the break.
"Their game is through the wings and their speed up top, so as many times as we possibly could the midfielders did double back with the outside backs with Shea and some of their other speedy guys," said Johnson. "That was the goal of ours to give those guys help and shut them down. Often times when we score goals it starts from good defense."
Tony Beltran said the players were instructed to sprint 10 yards back immediately after turning it over to get as many players behind the ball as quickly as possible.
"(I was pleased with the) reaction of midfielders when the ball turned over to get back and help our outside backs dealing with two very good players with Brek Shea and Jackson. All in all everyone did what was asked of them tonight," said Kreis.
Dallas came into the match with the second-highest scoring team in MLS, but it only generated eight shots and only three on goal against RSL's collective defensive effort.
Three of those shots came in the final 10 minutes as Dallas desperately pushed forward for the equalizer. The visitors were unlucky not to score in the 85th minute after Chris Wingert frantically cleared a close-range shot by Jackson off the line.
"I don't think he hit it as cleanly as he wanted to hit it. Give credit to Wingert for never giving up and for coming in. I mean, that's a 1-1 game and I don't think Salt Lake scores unless the gods are with them," said FC Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman.
These teams meet again in Dallas on Tuesday's in a U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal match.