Casey Townsend calls it the “striker instinct,” and as a pure striker, he ought to know. It generated the biggest moment of Chivas USA's season so far, delivered to the Goats their first victory.
The rookie's opportunistic half-volley in the 72nd minute and another exceptional performance in the back was enough for Chivas to claim a 1-0 triumph Saturday night over powerful Real Salt Lake in Sandy, Utah, a stirring upset that might be worth a lot more than three points.
The Goats survived a half-hour under relentless pressure in the first half and a late RSL push at the end to give Robin Fraser his first victory over his former club and Chivas its first win at Rio Tinto Stadium. The way they did so, and how they turned their first-half turmoil into a fine second-half performance, might prod them along the next step in their evolution under the second-year coach.
“I would like to think so,” Fraser told ESPN Los Angeles by phone when he was asked if he thought the victory might be a huge step forward. “In our tenure here, I don't think the results have gone that way for us in this sort of game. When times got tough tonight, our guys dug in and dug deep and defended like nothing else mattered. … These guys just fought, gritted and gutted out a victory.”
It wasn't particularly pretty, even with Chivas matching RSL's possession for long stretches of the second half. The Goats created just two real scoring chances -- Townsend's goal followed Peter Vagenas' half-volley and Rauwshan McKenzie's rebound, both knocked aside by Nick Rimando, from a 16th-minute corner kick -- and had to stave off nearly nonstop forays by RSL, which entered the game No. 1 in Major League Soccer's overall standings.
The Utahns (2-1-0) had nearly a dozen scoring opportunities, and at least half of them were good. Former RSL reserve McKenzie was outstanding -- his 42nd-minute takeaway in the box from Fabian Espindola was clinical -- and fellow center back Heath Pearce and right back James Riley were nearly as good. Goalkeeper Dan Kennedy was a difference-maker, diving to stop Espindola in the 22nd and 93rd minutes, dominant when coming off his line to attack crosses, a master of his box. He was, Rimando said, “why we had this result.”
Townsend delivered the knockout punch following the Goats' best sequence of the night. The final three passes were key: Ryan Smith threaded the ball through three defenders to give Nick LaBrocca space to head forward, LaBrocca put Ante Jazic into open territory on the left flank, and Jazic whipped a cross into the middle for the rookie to battle for against Rimando and big center back Chris Schuler.
Schuler was between Rimando, who leaped and had the ball in his hands, and Townsend, who applied the necessary physical pressure in the air. The RSL goalkeeper, a former UCLA star from Montclair, fumbled the ball. Townsend, the No. 5 overall selection in January's MLS SuperDraft, followed the ball with his eyes as it fell to the ground, instinctively kicking at it as it landed. The ball sailed hard and true into the net.
“For a first [professional] goal, it was obviously very cool,” said Townsend, who scored 17 last fall as a senior at the University of Maryland. “As far as watching the ball on the way down, that's the striker instinct in me. I just kind of swung at it instinctively toward the net.”
Said Rimando: “You go for the ball if the cross is in your area, and if there’s contact, there’s contact. That’s the sport. There’s no excuse or anything like that. Unfortunately, the ball came out of my hands and bounced right to [Townsend].”
“I didn't see exactly what happened,” Townsend said. “It ricocheted off Nick, ricocheted off Chris and fell in front of me. It was a fortunate bounce for us, but we'll take it anyway we get it.”
The struggle to create chances is an ongoing issue, exacerbated by injuries to striker Juan Pablo Angel and winger Michael Lahoud, who were missing again Saturday. In three games, Chivas (1-2-0) has created only seven true opportunities. It needed 252 minutes to find the net.
WORTH NOTING: Chivas is last in the Western Conference, behind the Galaxy on goal difference. Everyone else has 4, 6 or 7 points. ... RSL was 10-3-4 in MLS games at Rio Tinto last year and 11-0-4 at home in 2010. ... Townsend described RSL's final assault, over five minutes of stoppage, as “15 corner kicks, it seemed like.” The Utahns took four of their 10 CKs during stoppage. … Pearce sustained a leg injury in the 63rd, left the field for three minutes, then returned. Fraser wasn't sure how serious the injury might be. … Pearce had to leave a second time when he was elbowed in the face in the 77th. He again returned. ... Schuler scored on a header following an 11th-minute free kick for RSL, but referee Mark Kadlecik brought the play back. The restart was taken too quickly, while Kadlecik was dealing with Chivas' wall. … New Chivas signing Scott Gordon made his MLS debut, coming on right after the goal. … RSL coach Jason Kreis' take: “We created a ton of chances. We had the majority of the possession. We were the more attacking-minded team. We were the more dangerous team. On a different night, we win that game by multiple goals.” … Alejandro Moreno, surgically repaired broken nose and all, was on the bench and ready for action, had he been needed. Defender David Junior Lopes was dropped from the 18. … Laurent Courtois, his calf strain healed, went 80 minutes. ... The postponed MLS Reserve League match against the Galaxy has been rescheduled for April 2.
Home Depot Center (Carson)
Real Salt Lake 0, Chivas USA 1
C -- Casey Townsend 72
Real Salt Lake: Nick Rimando; Tony Beltran, Chris Schuler, Jamison Olave, Chris Wingert; Ned Grabavoy, Kyle Beckerman, Luis Gil (Jonny Steele, 71), Sebastian Velasquez (Javier Morales, 46); Paulo Jr. (Alvaro Saborio, 46), Fabian Espindola. Unused subs: Yordany Alvarez, Emiliano Bonfigli, Nat Borchers, Kyle Reynish.
Chivas USA: Dan Kennedy; James Riley, Rauwshan McKenzie, Heath Pearce, Ante Jazic; Peter Vagenas (Ben Zemanski, 67), Oswaldo Minda; Ryan Smith (Scott Gordon, 74), Nick LaBrocca, Laurent Courtois (Cesar Romero, 81); Casey Townsend. Unused subs: Miller Bolaños, Tim Melia, Alejandro Moreno, John Alexander Valencia.
Yellow cards: Schuler 12, Minda 45, Vagenas 55, Townsend 86, Kennedy 93+.
Referee: Mark Kadlecik. Att.: 20,415.