Thursday, April 17, 2014

Wild rides: Significant games in RSL's road to an MLS Cup berth in 2013, 2009 (22 items)

By , Deseret News

Dec. 4, 2013

In nearly every run to a championship on the field of play, there are matches full of agony and ecstacy, contests clouded by moments of doubt and victories followed by hours of sheer joy.

Twice in the past five Major League Soccer seasons, Real Salt Lake has ridden this wave of emotion and momentum to a berth in the MLS Cup. Real will be attempting to win its second league championship when it takes on Sporting KC in the title game Saturday (2 p.m. MST, ESPN).

Both this season and in 2009, Real Salt Lake endured trials during the season, then enjoyed key moments and clutch plays during the playoffs to advance to the championship game. Here's a look back at the journey for RSL in 2013 and 2009:

Whitney O'Bannon is a new media sports writer for the Deseret News. Follow on Twitter at @whitney_oban.

1 of 22. A look back at 2013

For the second time in five seasons, RSL finds itself playing in the MLS Cup, and there were plenty of highs and lows this year that have shaped this team. Here's 10 significant RSL games so far from the 2013 season:

2 of 22. June 8, 2013, Home vs. L.A. Galaxy

Regular Season

Won, 3-1

Beating the L.A. Galaxy at home is always a memorable night for Real Salt Lake, but this victory was special for one player in particular. Olmes Garcia scored a spectacular goal with a flick off his back to give RSL the advantage in the 85th minute. Then in stoppage time he added another one off a beautiful breakaway to secure the 3-1 win in front of a sold-out crowd.

“To score twice is something beautiful,’’ Garcia said through a translator. “I’m thankful to the people who come to support us. I’m thankful to my teammates — they help me and we win tonight. I’m thankful to God I have the opportunity to score.’’

In addition to the RSL newcomer's stunning night, the game was also a chance for revenge against the Galaxy. L.A. visited Rio Tinto just a month and a half prior to this outing, and dished out a 2-0 whooping of its own. This time was different, though, as Real Salt Lake didn't allow the Galaxy to jump on them early and outplayed L.A. in almost every way possible. RSL was becoming an entirely different team from early on in the season as this result extended the team's now-famous unbeaten streak to five games.

3 of 22. June 29, 2013, Away at Toronto FC

Regular Season

Won, 1-0

June was a dream month for Real Salt Lake. The Claret-and-Cobalt finished the month perfect, 6-0-0 across all competitions. RSL outscored opponents 17-3 and recorded four shutouts in the midst of a killer unbeaten streak. With all cylinders clicking at that time, Real was a force in the MLS.

For a quiet scoring night from both sides, this matchup was drama-filled. RSL midfielder Yordany Alvarez put some heat on the ball and rocketed an outside shot to the far netting to put his team up 1-0 just before halftime. As the game wore on both Real Salt Lake and Toronto became heated with 27 total fouls committed. In the 80th minute, the referee showed red cards to both RSL defender Tony Beltran and Toronto's Doneil Henry for fighting.

Intensity following that exchange only grew, but RSL veteran goalkeeper Nick Rimando kept his head and proved he's still one of the best in the MLS after recording four saves, most of them coming in the closing minutes of the game. But the play of the game came from Nat Borchers. After making a defensive mistake, Borchers recovered with a clutch clearance off the line with mere seconds remaining in stoppage time. Real Salt Lake rolled out of Canada with its first-ever win on Canadian soil.

4 of 22. July 13, 2013, Away at FC Dallas

Regular Season

Won, 3-0

Only one week following its heroics in Canada and after playing six games in three weeks, Real Salt Lake did it again by winning for the first time ever in Texas. That state was like a ghost town of missed opportunities for the Claret-and-Cobalt until, against all odds, RSL beat FC Dallas in its home stadium.

"It's good because I've never won a game here," Kreis said after the game. "Even when I was playing we'd come back and we usually would get beaten. It's been the same way since I've been coaching. It feels good."

Although Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando and Tony Beltran were away on international duty, the RSL men played with grit and a chip on their shoulders. FC Dallas came out firing, but couldn't get anything past Josh Saunders, who was filling in for RSL's main man Rimando. Despite Real's limited scoring chances in the first half, acting captain Javier Morales managed to make the most of a lucky ricochet and nutmegged FCD defender Zach Loyd. RSL took a 1-0 lead into the locker room.

But disaster struck in the opening minutes of the second half as Saunders went down with an ACL knee injury. In came third-string keeper Jeff Attinella but nobody on RSL looked worried about the kid making his first MLS appearance. And for good reason.

Attinella stunned everyone in his first game with key, fast-reflex saves for the remaining 39 minutes and kept a clean slate. RSL added two more goals to clinch the road victory.

At this point RSL was in the midst of a hot streak. Winning, giving the younger guys opportunities to play and overcoming adversity drove the players closer than ever. The RSL brotherhood was forming, putting team chemistry at an all-time high.

5 of 22. July 20, 2013, Home vs. Sporting KC

Regular Season

Lost, 2-1

This game was a huge opportunity at the time with all the major publications, RSL personnel and fans predicting its possible playoff implications. Several people at the time predicted this showdown between the league's top two teams could be a preview of what to expect come playoffs. Oh the foreshadowing, as the two teams will now match up for round two in the 2013 MLS Cup on Saturday.

With RSL's 11-game unbeaten streak on the line and several players sidelined due to injuries and international duty, Real Salt Lake fought hard but fell to Sporting off a last-second goal in stoppage time. In the 97th minute KC's Ike Opara headed a shot just past the reach of Jeff Attinella which silenced the shocked crowd at Rio Tinto. That was the last play of the game an RSL fell to the No. 2 spot in the Supporters' Shield race.

The game was devastating for RSL and despite trying to move on quickly from the loss, Real Salt Lake struggled in the coming weeks.