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SANDY, Utah -- For the last month, as Real Salt Lake stumbled through a six-game winless streak, the team tried to comfort itself in the knowledge that when the playoffs started, it would have its full complement of players, and that would be enough to get back to winning ways.
That faith proved to be well-founded.
With Javier Morales manning the midfield controls and Kyle Beckerman providing the requisite steel in the middle of the park, Real claimed a comprehensive 3-0 win over the Seattle Sounders. Alvaro Saborio scored twice while Ned Grabavoy delivered a soul-crushing third tally. And while there is still 90 minutes of the second leg still to be played, RSL has a stranglehold on the series and couldn't be better placed to advance to the Western Conference final.
|Alvaro Saborio scored two goals in Salt Lake's emphatic 3-0 win in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinal.|
"We said during the week that we had a choice to make," said coach Jason Kreis. "We could come into this match feeling sorry for ourselves and down about ourselves and negative&or remember back to CONCACAF and back to the good spells during the season about how good we could be. It seems to me the guys made the right choice."
Among those players choosing wisely was Morales. He has long been the hub around which RSL's attack has run, and the fact that he has managed to return this season after suffering a broken left ankle in May is nothing short of miraculous. On this night, it was his ability to exploit space out on the flanks that led to both of the home side's first two goals. Seattle had been caught over-shifting defensively a few times in the first half, a habit that Kreis said he recognized beforehand and was keen to see his team exploit. In this instance, right back James Riley was left on an island defending two RSL attackers, and RSL took advantage. Morales collected the ball on the left flank, and his perfectly weighted pass to Chris Wingert was slotted across the face goal to provide Saborio with the simplest of tap-ins.
The tally wasn't without controversy, as there was considerable debate over whether the Costa Rican had strayed into an offside position. But television replays appeared to show that Saborio was even with the last defender, and the goal was given.
The tally had capped off a spell of sustained pressure in which goalkeeper Kasey Keller was called upon several times to deliver sharp saves, with his 24th minute save from Andy Williams the pick of the bunch.
Seattle found it difficult to cope with the defensive pressure applied by RSL, losing almost every physical battle, but did manage to threaten on a few occasions. Alvaro Fernandez had a glorious chance to equalize in first half stoppage time, but his free header from a Leo Gonzalez cross was put harmlessly wide.
That proved to be a rare foray, however. RSL started the second half on the front foot again, and doubled their advantage in the 54th minute. Robbie Russell fed Morales on the right wing, and his centering feed was brilliantly back-heeled into the goal by Saborio.
"Javy found a little bit of his swagger tonight," said Kreis. "That should bode well for us."
The question at that point for the Sounders centered on whether they should chase a goal that would put them in better position for the second leg, or not risk conceding a third. Seattle manager Sigi Schmid opted to bring on Michael Fucito and Erik Friberg for the disappointing duo of Sammy Ochoa and Lamar Neagle.
But while Seattle wasn't overly reckless in its approach, RSL "smelled blood" as Beckerman put it, and scored a third goal in the 88th minute that was as important psychologically as it was in terms of the score. Williams' teasing cross was cleared only as far as Grabavoy, who fended off the attentions of Gonzalez to hammer his shot in off Seattle midfielder Brad Evans.
If the scoreline was a shock, equally mystifying was the tame performance produced by Seattle that went well beyond the absence of injured midfielder Mauro Rosales. And it could've been worse. Had Keller not produced a string of quality stops, RSL would be completely out of sight. Midfielder Osvaldo Alonso was also very fortunate to get away with just a caution after aggressively putting his hands to the neck and face of Saborio. And while Schmid left himself open to a bit of second guessing for starting the inexperienced duo of Neagle and Ochoa, the malaise afflicting the Sounders was team-wide.
"Everyone was the wrong choice," said Schmid of his lineup selections. "With the exception of Keller, nobody played real well. They won all the duels&They were more physical than us. The knocked us off the ball early on, and we didn't react well to it. They crushed people on tackles. We pushed people on tackles, we didn't crush them. They were much better than we were in all facets of the game."
There was one aspect of the match that was a bit worrying for RSL, however, and that was the injuries suffered to starting central defenders Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers. Olave left the game with a right quadriceps injury, while Borchers strained a tendon in his left knee. The status of both players as it relates to Wednesday's second leg remains unclear. Borchers will undergo an MRI on Sunday to see how extensive the damage is, although he indicated that he couldn't push off with his left leg.
Chris Schuler filled in admirably for Olave, and Chris Wingert tucked inside for the last six minutes of the match, although it remains to be seen how RSL would cope if both Olave and Borchers are unable to play.
That was why Kreis, as pleased as he was at the scoreline, was taking nothing for granted.
He said, "If we spend too much time patting ourselves on the back tonight, and spend too much time watching the highlights& then we're going to put ourselves in a bad place. We've got to keep our feet on the ground and say, 'It was a good first half, and there's a second half still to play.'"
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at email@example.com.