SANDY — Sam Johnson was brought to Real Salt Lake to score goals.
And even though it’s been a bit of a slow start for Johnson — a preseason injury and an international call-up are partly to blame — on Saturday night everything finally came together for the Liberian striker.
Johnson banged home his first goal of the season early against Orlando City FC, and Real Salt Lake rode that momentum to a 2-1 victory at Rio Tinto Stadium as it withstood a strong push forward from the visitors in the final 30 minutes.
“It feels very good to score first goal in MLS, very happy,” said Johnson, who said he expects to score many more goals this season as his new teammates continue to learn his tendencies.
The win snapped a bizarre four-game losing skid for Real Salt Lake, which improved to 2-4-1 and moved up to eighth place in the Western Conference.
“I thought it was a gritty performance at times. I thought it was a very well-played performance by us sometimes and I thought it was a bit nervy sometimes, but at the end of the day it’s three points,” said RSL coach Mike Petke.
Johnson scored early in the first half and Damir Kreilach early in the second half, and defensively it was enough of a cushion as Justen Glad made his first start of the season after breaking his toe in the week leading up to the season opener.
“It’s not easy to be in this situation when you lose four games in a row, today was the most important thing to take three points. We did it. And now we have to stay positive,” said Kreilach.
Building on the momentum won’t be easy as RSL plays at expansion Cincinnati and then the L.A. Galaxy over the next two weeks.
A confident Johnson could be a huge asset going forward.
“I’m happy for him, hopefully this is going to breed more confidence into him and he’ll continue to provide goals for us,” said Petke.
In his second start in an RSL uniform, and first at home, Johnson got the home side on the board in the 17th minute on a cracking finish from a tough angle.
He initially got in behind Orlando’s defense on a through ball from Albert Rusnak, but when he slipped in the penalty area midfielder Ruan was in perfect position to clear the ball out. Strangely Ruan had an awkward first touch, and in the moment Johnson popped back up, collected the ball, split two defenders and then smashed a shot over the shoulder of keeper Brian Rowe for the 1-0 lead.
“If you look at the whole play and his goal, if I could use one snapshot of an example that personifies what I want out of my players, that’s it. He makes a great run, he slips and falls down and gets right back up and determined to continue the play and he gets the reward out of it,” said Petke.
Unfortunately for RSL, seven minutes later it was forced to make an early sub for the second straight home game.
Midfielder Everton Luiz injured his left knee on an awkward sliding challenge near the sideline in the 24th minute, and never returned as he limped straight to the locker room with the help of two RSL medical personnel. Nick Besler replaced Luiz for his fourth appearance of the season.
Real Salt Lake maintained the lead until halftime, but it didn’t take long to double that advantage in the second half. In the 55th minute — with Orlando attacking reinforcements Dom Dwyer and Nani standing on the sideline ready to check in —Kreilach smashed a shot past Rowe from about 15 yards out on a great cutback pass from Jefferson Savarino near the endline for the 2-0 lead.
It was the second goal of the season from Kreilach, who was particularly motivated after missing last week’s match in Seattle because of a suspension.
The game changed after Kreilach’s goal though. Spurred on by the quality of Nani and Dwyer, Orlando played with more urgency after going down 2-0 and controlled possession the rest of the match. It was eventually rewarded and pulled a goal back in the 81st minute on a great free kick over the wall by Nani.
With 10 minutes to try and equalize Orlando had RSL on its back heels, but Petke thought his players remained calm in those nervy moments to hold on for the win.