All week long, there was a feeling surrounding Real Salt Lake that the fourth time would be a charm.
On three separate occasions this season, RSL had chances to move into first place with a victory, but it failed to score a goal each game let alone win. Saturday night was the club's fourth opportunity to stake its claim on first place in the West, and the hunches about the fourth time being a charm were correct.
Javier Morales scored early and Robbie Findley scored late as Real Salt Lake blanked the Columbus Crew 2-0 at Rice-Eccles Stadium to move to the top of the Western Conference table for the first time in franchise history.
The same franchise that was once viewed as a joke around Major League Soccer is a first-place team at long last. RSL (6-6-5) upped its season total to 23 points with the win, one more than second-place Los Angeles and Chivas USA. The win also kept RSL unbeaten at home at 5-0-5.
"It's cool, it's great we got there, but the main thing was getting three points tonight," said Real midfielder Kyle Beckerman. "Right now's not the most important time to be in first place that will be at the end of the year but it's big that we can actually do it."
Remaining in first place over the next two months won't be easy, as seven of RSL's next 10 games are on the road. The team will worry about that on Monday after enjoying the weekend.
"It's fantastic to go downstairs to look into the players' eyes and the coaching staff's eyes and realize how hard we've worked for such a long time to get to some small bit of accolades at the moment," said coach Jason Kreis.
"It's also important that we don't dwell on it too long. We've got to get back to work this week. We've got to try and put a string of good results together."
RSL got the early goal it was looking for Saturday night as Morales uncorked a free kick into the back of the net for the 1-0 lead in the fourth minute.
Ironically enough, the goal could've been prevented.
Frankie Hejduk was standing on the outside of Columbus' six-man wall on Morales' free kick. Just as the ball was struck, though, Hejduk strangely jumped about 12 inches away from the wall, creating a narrow seam for Morales' shot to sail through for the early lead.
"It's doctor's orders," said Kreis. "This game needed an early goal, and if we could score an early goal that was going to be the difference for us going forward, so to score one that early was quite nice."
RSL had several decent chances from long range to double the advantage before halftime, but each seemed to miss by a foot or two on either side of the post.
Not capitalizing on those chances would force RSL to sweat a rather nerve-wracking half hour in the second half.
Columbus was unlucky not to equalize in the 50th minute when Guillermo Barros Schelotto corralled a poor clearance at the top of the box and cracked it off the left post. The Crew continued to be the aggressor and were nearly rewarded again when Chad Marshall came crashing into the box on a corner kick, heading it just wide in the 77th minute.
Less than 60 seconds later, Columbus' hopes of salvaging a tie were dashed as Kenny Deuchar and Findley, neither of whom started, teamed up for the critical second goal. Deuchar laid the ball off for Findley, who chased it down in the box and made a simple touch around the keeper before drilling it into the vacant net.RSL will try and win back-to-back games for the first time this season when it visits Chicago next weekend.
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