COLUMBUS, Ohio — There's something about the playoffs that brings out the best in Real Salt Lake, even on the road.
During the regular season, RSL would've never been tough enough mentally to fall behind by a pair of goals and rally for the win. Coach Jason Kreis said that's always been "game, set and match."
Something was different Thursday night in Columbus.
After spotting the defending champion Crew two goals in the opening 35 minutes in Game 2 of their home-and-home series, Real Salt Lake responded in a very uncommon way. It scored three straight goals to pull out a stunning 3-2 victory at Crew Stadium, ultimately prevailing in the MLS first round series 4-2 on aggregate.
"To be honest, tonight is a microcosm of two years for us. We've had a lot of challenges, and we've had to work extremely hard and we've certainly seen a lot of adversity, and the way we responded tonight is fantastic," said RSL coach Jason Kreis.
For the second straight year, the historically bad road team clinched a playoff series on the road and now advances to the Eastern Conference final on Nov. 14, where it will face either New England or Chicago.
It wasn't easy by any means. Last Saturday's 1-0 win at Rio Tinto Stadium gave RSL a narrow cushion heading into Game 2, but it only took 19 minutes for that lead to disappear. Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who was a surprising exclusion from the Crew's lineup in Game 1, curled a 48-yard free kick into the box that strangely went untouched and bounced harmlessly into the box of the net.
In the 35th minute, Schelotto scored again, capitalizing on a horrible Robbie Russell giveaway.
Suddenly RSL found itself down 2-1 on aggregate, which didn't bode well for a team that finished the 2009 regular season with a 2-11-2 road record.
Surprisingly, the players weren't concerned.
"I don't think we started panicking at all. We knew this team couldn't hold us to one goal tonight. Unfortunately we had to wait until we're up 2-0," said Andy Williams.
Just two minutes after coughing up momentum entirely, RSL pulled a goal back as Morales knocked in a Kyle Beckerman through ball to whittle the deficit to 2-1. More importantly it leveled the aggregate score at 2-2 and gave RSL a much-needed life line.
"It quickly gave us something positive to jump on right away," said Kreis.
Just before halftime, Real Salt Lake caught another break when it was awarded a penalty kick after Frankie Hejduk dragged down Fabian Espindola in the box. Robbie Findley buried the penalty, leveling the score at 2-2 and putting RSL back in front a goal on aggregate 3-2.
It was a dream scenario for RSL after a horrible opening 35 minutes.
As expected, the second half was an onslaught, with the Crew increasingly throwing more numbers forward in hopes of a series equalizer. RSL keeper Nick Rimando was continually called upon to make saves and keep the defenders in front of him organized as Columbus outshot his team 14-4 in the second half.
The Crew's need to throw bodies forward exposed themselves to the counter attack that RSL is always capable of capitalizing on with speedy strikers Robbie Findley and Yura Movsisyan.
In the 74th minute, a Movsisyan counter attack led to a corner kick. RSL opted for a short corner, which Andy Williams curled on frame. Kyle Beckerman feigned a shot at the ball, which fooled everyone, including Columbus keeper Will Hesmer, who helplessly watched the ball slip into the back of the net.
Up 4-2 on aggregate, Real Salt Lake defended confidently the rest of the way to clinch the series.
"Gotta give credit to the guys coming back from 2-0 down away at Columbus, seriously, this team definitely has some definite potential. You can't ask for more," said Russell.
Rimando made eight saves on the night, but his biggest occurred in the 85th minute when he tapped a Jason Garey dipping shot just over the crossbar to keep RSL's two-goal advantage.
e-mail: [email protected]