COLUMBUS, Ohio Real Salt Lake's 2008 trophy potential got halved on Tuesday thanks to a 2-0 defeat by the Columbus Crew in a U.S. Open Cup play-in match.
"It's tough," RSL midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. "We're in a bit of a road slump and trying to find a way to get out. We can't find answers right now. The fight was there though."
The match turned irretrievably against the visitors in a four-minute span of the second half. RSL trailed at that point from a Robbie Rogers 26th-minute goal.
First Dema Kovalenko was sent off for needlessly tossing the ball at Columbus' Emmanuel Ekpo in the 50th minute. Ekpo had just fouled RSL's Ian Joy, and a heated exchange between players of both teams ensued.
"We need (Kovalenko) out there," Beckerman said. "He's really important for the team."
Contact between the ball and Ekpo's face was minimal, but the Columbus midfielder went down like he was hit by a baseball bat. Referee Jeff Gontarek did not hesitate to send off Kovalenko for throwing the ball at an opponent.
"You just can't do that," Kreis said. "We didn't really have any arguments for that."
Columbus took immediate advantage of the extra space in the 54th minute. Robbie Rogers curled a shot from the top left corner of the penalty area in at Nick Rimando's right post.
"Obviously the ejection's not good for us," RSL coach Jason Kreis said. "And then they score a goal on top of that. We were back on our heels pretty badly at that point."
RSL reshuffled its deck. Tony Beltran replaced Dustin Kirby six minutes after Rodgers' goal. Fabian Espindola came on for Tino Nunez with 20 minutes to play in the match.
RSL began to get some offense moving with its changed lineup, though the two-goal deficit proved impossible to retrieve. Javier Morales entered the match for Matias Cordoba with 17 minutes to play as the game became truly end-to-end. RSL's Rimando was kept very busy throughout the match.
"I think we made it tough on ourselves," Rimando said. "Especially in the second half when we got a red card. We knew we were going to be down a man, and we knew we had to press to get a goal. We had to win or we were out of the tournament so that's why we pressed."
Ironically, RSL played its best attacking soccer in the 10-versus-11 situations, getting its best chances on Andy Gruenebaum in the final half-hour of play.
"After the ejection, we started to play a little more soccer," Kreis said. "We have to say 'hey' we played pretty well after our player got ejected. That shows a pretty good response."
Despite its renewed attacking vigor, RSL failed to force a breakthrough and the Crew advanced to meet Chicago in the next round.
RSL, meanwhile, returns to MLS action and hosts San Jose on Saturday in a key Western Conference matchup. MLS Cup is the only remaining trophy the Utahns can claim this season.
"We feel that's a must-win for us on Saturday," Beckerman said. "I'm sure San Jose feels the same. It's going to be a battle and hopefully we can keep doing well at home and get three points."
Tuesday's match was the first in an RSL uniform for forward Tino Nunez and defender David Horst.
Nunez lasted until halftime, when he was replaced by Andy Williams. The U.S. Open Cup allows five substitutions rather than the three allowed in MLS play.
Horst played the entire 90 minutes.
"I think there was good and bad typical of what you're going to find in young players," Kreis said. "There were some good moments and there were some mistakes for both of them."