It was a tough day for Real Salt Lake fans this afternoon at Rio Tinto Stadium. And, no, the team didn’t even lose its match against visiting Chivas USA. The home unbeaten streak now stands at 28 games during the course of regular season play, but the Rio Tinto hardly lived up to its nickname.
The crowd was smaller and less vocal than the crowd that was in the stadium a week and a half ago for the CONCACAF Final against Monterrey. For much of the first part of the match, the crowd (with the exception of the supporters groups in the south end of the stadium and other small pockets of fans) was almost disinterested in the game. No singing, no chanting, nothing. The game began to get chippy quickly as referee Paul Ward tried to keep the match under control.
Chivas was the aggressor, picking up its first yellow only 15 minutes into the match. RSL seemed to lack energy and was not playing its normal game, allowing itself to be pushed around by the Chivas players. The game should have turned in the 24th minute when Boyens picked up his second yellow of the match and was sent off, but the crowd was as lackadaisical as the players.
That changed briefly in the 37th minute as Marcos Mondaini was ejected on a straight red card after a reckless tackle injured Javier Morales. Many people in the stadium couldn’t believe the challenge on Morales and noted that Mondaini had no chance to win the ball.
Others were comforted that he was sent off with a red card, but a red card and a nine-man Chivas team can’t bring Morales back to the pitch anytime soon. I watched fans cover their eyes as the players on the field frantically called for medical personnel, knowing that Morales was in extreme pain.
Others chanted Morales' name as his leg was put into a cast and he was wheeled off the field on a stretcher. The referees added six minutes of stoppage time and RSL had a free kick on the edge of the area, but couldn’t capitalize before the halftime whistle.
RSL fans were more vocal toward the group of Chivas fans who continued to play their drums and sing while Morales was being attended to than they were to the game. You could almost feel whatever energy was in the stadium exit as quickly as it had been there, as if the entire crowd of more than 14,000 couldn’t believe their eyes.
The players felt the loss of Morales during the second half, as was evident by their play. Passes were off-target, the touch was gone and they seemed a step slow; can’t really say that anyone can blame them after watching one of the key pieces of the franchise leave in the manner that he did.
The supporters sections, La Barra Real and Salt City United, appeared to be the only ones cheering on the Claret and Cobalt as time continued to tick away. Head coach Jason Kreis made substitutions to help with the attack, pressing his charges to score for their fallen mate. Attack after attack was cleared by the Chivas defense or mishandled by RSL as it struggled to get the go-ahead goal against an undermanned opponent.
RSL was often throwing nine and 10 men into the attacking third but time seemed against them and the crowd knew it. The fans stared, not wanting to see another game in which RSL was shutout or an undeserved point for the Goats via a draw.
In something akin to slow motion, 70 minutes and then 80 ticked past on the game clock. As the time was winding down, the crowd snapped out of the funk that the Morales injury caused. They were trying to give the team energy, willing it to get the win for Morales.
Finally, in the 87th minute, Will Johnson slammed home a loose ball in the Chivas box of the game winning goal. He ran to the corner flag and was mobbed by his teammates. According to TV commentators and fans close to the celebration, Johnson flashed the number 11 (Morales’ number) with his index fingers.
As the streamers and confetti fluttered in the breeze, even the cheering of the crowd seemed subdued. Yes, RSL got the win today and yes, it kept pace with other teams on the league table, but there was no revelry or chanting as people filed to the exits.
For that matter, there were hardly any smiling faces or happy people as the realization set in that RSL will have to continue its quest for another MLS Cup without its playmaker, and one of the genuinely good guys in the entire league.
Landon Walters is a history and political science major currently studying at Salt Lake Community College, and is an avid sports fan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter at www.twitter.com/LandawgDew