Thursday May 7th, 2015

SANDY, Utah — It doesn’t get any closer than Real Salt Lake and the LA Galaxy’s rivalry in Major League Soccer. A scoreless draw on Wednesday took the teams to 11-11-7 against each other in regular-season play.

The moments building up to the match foreshadowed another installment of one of the cagiest matchups in the league. Lightning around Rio Tinto Stadium delayed kickoff just over an hour before a frantic final 20 minutes gave both teams a point in the standings.

During the national anthem, a bolt east of the stadium lit the area from ground to sky, followed almost immediately by a reverberant crack. After the final notes of “Star-Spangled Banner,” referee José Carlos Rivero pointed straight back down the tunnel, directing players to clear the field.

MLS rules prohibit playing within 30 minutes of lightning activity, and the Sandy sky show continued for nearly half an hour after the initial sighting. Kickoff was pushed back twice. Finally, the match started at 8:40 p.m. MT after captains Omar Gonzalez and Kyle Beckerman met with the referees just inside the tunnel to the field.

“We were just making sure [the players] were hydrated [and eating] bananas, protein bars, whatever,” Salt Lake head coach Jeff Cassar said after the game. “We kind of just let them have a mental break because we didn’t know exactly when we were going to be going out. Some were playing darts, some were listening to music.”

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It was the second lightning delay at Rio Tinto in a match involving these teams. The first, in 2010, lasted 37 minutes and eventually ended in a 1-0 RSL win. Salt Lake has endured a handful of weather delays in franchise history, but the only other one at home was an 84-minute wait in the midst of another 1-0 win, over D.C. United, in 2012.

Wednesday’s game started sloppily, as the players cleared the delay-induced fog from their minds and acclimated to a wet pitch. Desperate to erase early season problems in the attack, RSL immediately pushed to score the first goal off its own foot in five matches.

Besides an own goal from Víctor Bernárdez in a 1-1 draw with the San Jose Earthquakes here on Friday, RSL hasn’t scored in 496 minutes. It wasn’t for lack of attacking effort, as Salt Lake finished with 11 shots.

In some ways, RSL was a little too eager. Its forwards strayed offside five times in the first 17 minutes, finishing with seven total in the first half.

“I look at it as a team that’s trying to be aggressive at home,” Cassar said. “I don’t think they were all offsides.”

The RSL attack simmered compellingly all night without getting anything to fall into the back of the net. Luis Gil and second-year pro Jordan Allen ran the midfield, skillfully dribbling past players on a couple occasions.

Allen showed off a spin move just inside his own half of the field to blow past Stefan Ishizaki, and Gil slipped a ball through Dan Gargan’s legs before running onto it to set up a crossing opportunity.

Frantically searching for its team identity in Cassar’s second season as coach, Salt Lake reverted to a tactical system similar to the one that brought it success in Jason Kreis’ time for the second time this season.

“It looked kind of like the RSL of old,” defender Tony Beltran said, although his coach agreed only up to a point.

Kreis’ teams played with a diamond in midfield, a cluster of four players keeping the ball away from the opposition, but Cassar implemented his own spin on the system.

“Attacking-wise, we were in a different formation, but defensively, we dropped into that [diamond],” Cassar said. “It wasn’t necessarily a diamond. It might look like that at times.”

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Like the lightning that delayed the game, the final 20 minutes provided a flash of excitement. RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando leaped to tip Alan Gordon’s header over the bar, and Galaxy counterpart Jaime Penedo stretched to save several efforts, most notably on an Álvaro Saborío shot from the top of the penalty area in the 76th minute.

Penedo stopped six shots in the match to preserve the clean sheet for his team. Forward Robbie Keane missed a fifth consecutive match with a groin injury, depleting the Galaxy attack, but LA still found the best opportunity to win the game via a stoppage time penalty kick.

RSL center back Jámison Olave was at fault, jostling with Gonzalez in the moments before a free kick, then tripping him as the service flew toward goal.

Rivero blew his whistle after consulting with assistant referee Fabio Tovar—whose flag went up so often against RSL in the opening period—and Juninho stepped up to take the penalty.

Rimando, however, was up to the task. The goalkeeper extended low to his left, pushing the wide and maintaining the deadlock. The save put him at 24-for-66 in his career stopping penalty kicks, a 36-percent success rate in a situation in which the attacker should score every time.

“There’s some studying going on, for sure. There’s a feel,” Rimando said afterward. “There’s last-minute decisions, and a lot of them go against me, but tonight it was for me.”

The missed penalty will sting for LA, but the Galaxy can take solace in the fact that it stretched its current undefeated run to five games, the last three of which have been draws. The Galaxy left at least somewhat happy with the result after RSL held the advantage in most attacking categories.

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“Pleased that we managed to get a point here, where it’s always tough to play, but disappointed because we were that close to getting three,” Gonzalez said. “On the night, I think if we would have make the PK, we would have deserved to win.”

Rimando’s last-minute penalty save likely caused Galaxy flashbacks to the 2009 MLS Cup final, when Salt Lake won in a shootout and Rimando made two saves, while Landon Donovan sent his effort over the bar.

That match started a streak of playoff series between the two franchises, who have met three times in the last four postseasons. LA won the 2014 Western Conference semifinals after a 5-0 drubbing in the second leg at home, but the teams maintain a mutual respect, especially considering the parity in their regular-season series.

“We know that each time we face each other, it’s going to be a good game,” Gonzalez said. “It’s been a pretty solid matchup.”

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