Saturday’s match is the only regular season meeting between Real Salt Lake and Toronto FC. Toronto takes Rio Tinto field after a major reboot, bringing US International MF Michael Bradley and former English Premier League star striker Jermaine Defoe, Brazilians FW Gilberto, fresh off a 14 goal season at Brazilian Série A side Portugesa, and Brazilian Men’s National Team GK Julio Cesar. The returns have been good, with Toronto sharing second place in the Easter Conference with a 2-0-0 record.
The RSL faithful were out in full force, with 18,889 of them filling the stands, hoping for the boys in Claret and Cobalt to keep the Toronto Superstars from a win at the Fortress. RSL entered the game without former Toronto FW, Joao Plata, who had been on a tear to start the season before going out with a hamstring injury against Los Angeles in RSL’s 1-1 draw last Saturday. Real entered the game in fourth place in the Western Conference with a 1-0-2 record.
Real Salt Lake was up for the challenge Saturday, with it’s defense looking as strong as it ever has off coach Jeff Cassar’s focus on sound defense. The offensive attack was equally solid, with Alvaro Saborio scoring 1 off a PK in the first half and another in the second, with Luis Gil adding a third to give RSL a 3-0 shutout.
Nick Rimando had a save in the first half and another in the second half. Other than that, he really didn’t have too much to worry about, until Toronto went into berserker mode, after Alvaro Saborio’s second goal scored in the 55th minute, led by Michael Bradley who spun what looked like a wide shot right into the right post as Rimando stood slack-armed on his line. Thankfully his defense had no trouble gobbling up the rebound. Gilberto’s shot in the 56th minute was better on frame and Rimando had no trouble collecting it. Toronto sent another shot screaming goal-ward in the 57th minute which Rimando parried wide. The attack trailed off until the 76th minute when Rimando had his 5th and 6th saves of the game.
Nothing new to see here. Schuler and Borchers in the middle, Wingert and Beltran on the outside. Toronto played a very high line of attack most of the game, allowing for significant room in the midfield for RSL’s defenders to linkup with the midfield, albeit with a lot less time than they’re used to.
Tony Beltran played excellent attacking soccer, Saturday night, linking up with Morales and Gil all night long. His defending was solid as well, matching step for step Toronto’s speedy MF Alvaro Rey and FW Jermaine Defoe.
Chris Schuler was issued a silly yellow card caution in the 37th minute on a foul where the replay showed him first to the ball and with almost no contact at all against Toronto FW Gilberto, who went down writhing in pain as if his leg were broken. His physical play left nothing to be ashamed of.
Nat Borchers was at his best picking up the likes of Jermain Defoe on streaking runs into the box. He was as good with his head as he’s been at RSL and his positioning was key to keeping Toronto off the score sheet, particularly during their second half onslaught.
Chris Wingert just does the right thing. He’s not flashy, but he’s rarely out of position and he was very good Saturday night. He subbed out in the 58th minute, making way for Rich Balchan’s first appearance since his 12 month shoulder rehab stint ended this season.
Rich Balchan (Sub, ’58) had no trouble matching the physical tone set by Wingert and the rest of the RSL back line. He was rusty, particularly in man-to-man battles, but in the end he was not a liability, and Wingert has to be happy the backup is back in the lineup for the occasional breather or injury fill-in, heaven forbid.
RSL countered Toronto’s flattened midfield with a broader diamond than usual, partially to pull Tornoto’s midfield out of shape, and to leave the defensive wings in position to pick up Toronto’s speedy front line and higher midfield wingers.
Luis Gil showed why Jurgen Klinsman called him into the USMNT camp earlier in the week with tenacious play and excellent passing up the right side. But it was his 28th minute score off a Chris Wingert pin-baller into the box that put RSL up 2-0, and showed why his star is rising fast in US Soccer.
Javier Morales had the kind of game RSL fans hope to see every time RSL takes the field this season. His passing was beautiful, but his receiving was perfection. His linkup play through the middle of the field set up RSL’s second goal and caused Toronto problems all night long. His shot in the 88th minute swerved into the box with “goal” written all over it until Julio Cesar made an acrobatic leap to parry it away.
Kyle Beckerman may have felt the need to outplay his Toronto counterpart, Michael Bradley with USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsman looking on. In fact, he ended up having the more interesting match ups with Bradley, rather than the expected dual between Javier Morales and the Toronto superstar. Beckerman held his own, but Bradley had the upper hand much of the night. He beat Beckerman on more than one occasion on the attack to send quality balls straight ahead into the box for Defoe to run onto. Beckerman struggled with his passing Saturday but his effort never flagged and he ended up instrumental in keeping Toronto off the score-sheet Saturday.
Ned Grabavoy continues to show why he’s one of the most improved players in Major League Soccer saturday. He’s always been skilled, but the last 12 months have seen him turn from a usually defensive minded midfielder into a devastatingly dangerous attacking winger. His work, particularly in the box, Saturday kept Toronto on their heels and struggling to build any momentum out of RSL attacks.
Luke Mulholland (Sub ’88) subbed on for Javier Morales in mop-up time.
The tandem of Alvaro Saborio and Joao Plata was money for RSL the first two-and-a-half games. But with Plata exiting Real’s match with Los Angeles last Saturday with a hamstring injury, the young Colombian Olmes Garcia, gets the opportunity to show salivating Salt Lake fans a pairing they’ve been calling for since Garcia joined the club in 2012. Garcia and Plata are both speedy, both crafty and both fearless. But even though the two are close in age, Garcia lacks some of the patience and maturity that made Plata seem like he’d found mid-season form early. Word is Plata could be back in as soon as 3 weeks.
Alvaro Saborio started the game working Toronto’s back line into a frenzy with physical play and head games, culminating in a 10th minute throw down by Toronto DF Doniel Henry inside the box that put RSL’s leading PK scorer at the spot where he cooly slotted a right footer past Julio Cesar into the left inside netting to put RSL up 1-0. Saborio’s willingness to play back defensively this season has been exciting to watch. In fact, it was a huge part of why Javier Morales was able to hit come forward with velocity much of the night, off Saborio stops in the midfield. He capped a tremendous night of work with a 55th minute goal as he streaked into the box to beat Julio Cesar. Man of the Match.
Olmes Garcia’s speed was more than enough to keep things even along RSL’s front line in place of Joao Plata Saturday night. He was very good in the box, but his matchup with Toronto’s Justin Morrow and Doniel Henry was just plain fun to watch. He was physical, he was fast and he made RSL dangerous all night, until being subbed out for Devon Sandoval in the 84th minute.
Devon Sandoval (Sub ’84) made his season debut, Saturday in place of an Olmes Garcia who left everything he had on the field. Sandoval was adequate, still lacking some field awareness coming out of the winter break.
Chris Higbee is a former General Manager of DeseretNews.com who continues to write about Real Salt Lake.