It was just one of 30 regular-season games, but Real Salt Lake's players and coaches were fully aware of the magnitude of Saturday's match against visiting expansion team San Jose.
A loss would've been a psychological disaster, and Javier Morales contributed to tension by missing a penalty kick in just the third minute.
"I think there was quite a few players, myself included, that wanted to feel sorry for ourselves at that point," said RSL coach Jason Kreis.
The moping seemed to last until halftime, but when the players finally got over the early letdown the rout was on. Spurred on by a fantastic performance from second-half substitute Robbie Findley, RSL dominated the rest of the way en route to a 3-1 victory over San Jose in front of 15,977 fans at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Salt Lake improved to 3-0-2 and remained perfect at home with the win, in addition to upping its overall record to 3-5-2. In the parity-filled Western Conference, on a night when a loss would've dropped RSL into last place, the win moved it to within three points of the conference lead.
"It's a home game, bottom line. It doesn't matter if we're bottom of the league, we need to play well at home. If we just do our job at home, our road wins will come," said Williams, alluding to the fact that RSL is 0-5 on the road this year.
For whatever reason, though, it took a while to get going, and Kreis was extremely frustrated at halftime.
"I thought, quite frankly, we were miserable in the first half. Very, very disappointed, because I thought we were going to see 90 minutes of quality soccer tonight, and our guys just came out really, really flat, and at halftime we challenge them a bit," said Kreis.
The tongue-lashing, combined with Findley's 44th-minute entrance for the injured Fabian Espindola, was exactly what RSL needed.
In the 48th minute, Findley opened the scoring on a clinical 23-yard blast after he danced around San Jose defender Jason Hernandez. Twelve minutes later, Findley linked up with Morales on a fantastic give-and-go that sprung Morales forward for the breakaway, which he calmly buried for the 2-0 lead.
"I really felt like we raised our level in the second half and got a lot better," said Morales, who is now tied for the league lead with six assists.
In the 73rd minute, Dema Kovalenko tacked on the insurance goal from the spot that enabled everyone to breath a little easier in the final quarter-hour. A few weeks ago, RSL blew a 2-0 lead against the Galaxy and settled for a 2-2 draw, and last week it surrendered two goals in the final 10 minutes of a 2-1 loss at FC Dallas.
Kovalenko made sure there would be no collapse this time around, burying the penalty kick that was awarded after San Jose defender Nick Garcia dragged Andy Williams down in the box.
San Jose's players didn't dispute the second penalty much, but they were livid with the ref's decision to award a penalty kick in the opening minutes. Tony Beltran's free kick near the touchline clipped the arm of San Jose's Ned Grabavoy, who was standing just at the edge of the penalty area.
It was a penalty few referees will ever award, but Real definitely wasn't apologizing, having been victimized in its opinion by several questionable penalty kicks this year. Perhaps Kreis' public criticism of officials earlier this year and his subsequent suspension made a difference.
Too bad Morales missed the penalty kick, making the whole scenario a moot point.
Falling behind 3-0 on Kovalenko's tally, San Jose immediately pushed a few more bodies into the attack, and the result was John Cunliffe goal in the 84th minute. He narrowly missed a few minutes later, but other than it was a dominant display by RSL, which outshot the Earthquakes 15-7.
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