So, is the "new-look" Real Salt Lake really the same old Real Salt Lake? Goal scoring in bunches, attacking soccer mixed in with late defensive lapses? Should Saturday's result be considered a massive disappointment or an acceptably decent start to the 2007 MLS season? Should the fans have a positive or a negative point of view?
Where to start? Let's play both sides of the fence.
The 2007 campaign started off with a lot of positives for RSL: fresh, internationally-known new faces, a stadium deal that is on its way, eight starters returning to a team that missed the playoffs by two points (more on that later) and a coach who's known around the United States for developing youth talent.
And for the first 15 minutes, it was looking great. Not starting the game as stagnant as they had in their final preseason tune-up against Colorado in Las Vegas, the combination play between Jeff Cunningham and Freddy Adu led to a Mehdi Ballouchy opportunity that was kept out of the back of the net only by the crossbar.
A mistimed header by Danny Torres led to Willis Forko having to slide in and body up to FC Dallas forward Carlos Ruiz, who was able to flick the bouncing ball to his left about 15 yards out at the corner of the six for an onrushing Kenny Cooper to expertly finish to the far post, and even though new RSL 'keeper Nick Rimando got a right paw to it, he could not stop the ball from hitting the far post side net.
Twenty minutes in, it was 0-1 FC Dallas on their only opportunistic chance at goal.
With Cunningham picking up right where he left off with his 2006 MLS Golden Boot, RSL was finally level after a half-hour, with jersey number 90 squeezing between two FC Dallas defenders and toe poking the ball past a stranded Shaka Hislop from just outside the penalty spot.
Cunningham's strike was one of several opportunities for the RSL attack, which played perhaps the best half of soccer in the team's history. Ellinger's side was unlucky not to be up 3-1, feeding off the occasion, the altitude, the sun and the crowd of nearly 19,000 fans. As Cunningham told the media after the game, RSL was truly playing football.
1-1 at halftime.
Not making any changes after the break, RSL came out sharp with quick ball movement, great combination play and interchanging of positions to create multiple problems for FC Dallas. With Adu noticing that the opposing defense was slow to recover, a short corner found Ballouchy free at the corner of the 18-yard box. With a little dip of his shoulder, he found captain Jason Kreis at the top of the box all alone. Facing the west side of the stadium, Kreis hit a low, left-footed shot towards the far post that FC Dallas GK Shaka Hislop could only parry wide right. Once again, the golden boots and strong positioning of Cunningham found the back of the net with a well-timed, blue-collar follow-up that gave RSL the lead.
2-1 Real Salt Lake
With plenty of time - 30 minutes - left on the clock, Eddie Pope's left hip found its enemy in the form of a FC Dallas knee during a defensive corner kick and even though he tried in vain to stretch it out, the three-time World Cup veteran was forced to exit, and entered former first-rounder Nik Besagno at the right back position, with Jack Stewart sliding inside to the central defender role vacated by Pope.
RSL lost another starter, Ballouchy, to a knock in the calf with around 11 minutes left in the match that led to Kenny Cutler's insertion in the central midfield triangle, along with Kreis and Talley, each of whom were carrying yellow cards. The final substitution, and most debated and criticized, was Panamanian forward Luis Tejada replacing Kreis.
While letting the press know post-game that the substitution was meant to allow Real Salt Lake to hold the ball better up front, many have wondered why Cunningham was made to drop and defend in the right side of midfield in the dying moments when Chris Brown, Andy Williams and even Atiba Harris were all available.
Now here's where it gets kind of interesting and there are going to be multiple, conflicting views:
1. Did the midfielders and forwards do enough to kill the remaining extra time in regards to taking the balls that were won to the corner flags or even to the sideline, limiting the attacking chances of FC Dallas and maybe even winning he ball back through corner kicks and throw-ins?
2. Did RSL not put enough pressure on the incoming service of balls into the box?
3. When GK Nick Rimando came out calling for the ball, did the defenders hear him? And if so, or not for that matter, does it really make a difference because when a 'keeper commits the way Rimando did, isn't he ultimately responsible for that ball. (Remember, it is his box)
4. Could Besagno have done better in reacting to a loose ball and not head it towards his own goal?
5. Most importantly to many, including the head coach, was why in the world were there 5 minutes of extra time for 4 substitutions and 2 yellows?
2-2 94+ minute
One point. One.
Some will say it's not a big deal. Others will act like the world is crumbling at their feet. Will the RSL players have that "here we go again" mentality the next time they have the lead with 10 minutes left? Or will they come out with the "angry edge" Pope talked about in the post-game?
Ultimately we won't know until the last month of the season if points lost in the first game of the season will hurt. But last year Real Salt Lake did miss the playoffs ... by the same two-point margin given away in 30 seconds on Saturday!
Brian Dunseth, the former Captain of the 2000 U.S. Olympic Team, who scored the game-winning goal in Real Salt Lake's first-ever win in its home opener in 2005 vs. rival Colorado, can be heard each week on KALL 700 AM the Zone, providing analysis during RSL game broadcasts and co-hosting the pre- and post-game shows for RSL home games. A nine-year veteran of MLS play, Dunseth is now a licensed realtor for The Bringhurst Group in Salt Lake City, and looks forward to your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.