What a ride.
In a ridiculously entertaining match at Banc of California Stadium, Real Salt Lake overcame a 2-1 deficit, an onslaught of chances that came from every possible angle, mayhem from the stands, a tough, physical battle and a hostile crowd to beat LAFC 3-2 in the knockout round of the MLS playoffs.
Aside from the overwhelming possession and the 21 shots from the host team, Real Salt Lake survived thanks to a brace from Damir Kreilach (the second goal was magical) and a deflected shot in the 69th minute.
LAFC fans shamelessly did everything they could to disrupt valiant workhorse Nick Rimando, as the game had to be suspended for five minutes due to trash being thrown at the 39-year-old goalkeeper after Danilo Silva scored to make it 1-1, but the heroic goalkeeper stood his ground and helped his side beat the expansion team and book a spot in the Western Conference semifinals against Sporting Kansas City.
It was a rollercoaster of a game where resilience, led by Rimando, outlasted ingenuity. Here are three thoughts on a crazy game:
A lot of credit should go to RSL manager Mike Petke, who orchestrated an extremely resilient strategy, and his players followed to near perfection. Yes, the visitors did concede two goals due to careless defending, but they knew that for every shot LAFC would take, it would certainly leave gaps at the back when defending in transition. All RSL needed to do was stay compact, overload the midfield and take its chances when that happened.
Kreilach’s second goal was a thing of beauty but it was also due to LAFC’s constant ball watching and miscommunication the moment the host team lost the ball.
The winner from Jefferson Savarino’s deflected shot (ending up as Walker Zimmerman’s own goal) was an example of the same issues.
Every time Rimando picked up the ball, he looked for a chance to pounce on the counter and although it didn’t happen as much Petke might have liked, especially in the first half, the manager knew that the chances would come.
Laurent Ciman’s absence still felt
At the beginning of the season, the Belgian center back and LAFC’s captain was a vital part of this team, as he offered not just leadership but a disciplined, calming presence at the back. Ciman left for Ligue 1’s Dijon in August, and his absence was clearly felt Thursday. Real Salt Lake’s first goal was a perfect example of miscommunication and an inability to close down a cross and mark the target man. The second was due to a breathtaking volley from Kreilach, but prior to the goal, LAFC’s defenders were not concentrating and Kreilach made them pay. It simply was not good enough.
For all the offensive glamor, LAFC needed to be more organized at the back and Silva, despite scoring, needed to be that calming figure next to Zimmerman. Jordan Harvey also failed to close down the wings. We knew LAFC could score goals, but protecting itself became its biggest obstacle. Ciman, who was the militant voice, was sorely missed.
RSL's midfield: no bells and whistles, but gets the job done
Kyle Beckerman was key, as he never really left the back four further than a few yards. His midfield partners, Luke Mulholland and Albert Rusnak, also worked tirelessly to keep Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi quiet–an incredibly difficult task, but one they managedm as both stars failed to cause as much havoc as one would expect.
LAFC prides itself on aggressive, fast offense, but these three slowed the game down and protected their back four at every opportunity. And that was the key for Real Salt Lake: counter the strategy and slow the pace of the game. After the third goal was scored, a sense of frustration overtook LAFC, and RSL knew the job was done.