SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica – Real Salt Lake didn't get a historic win at Estadio Saprissa on Tuesday night – and a 2-1 loss never felt so good.
RSL made their 2-0 first-leg victory last month stand up, and become the first MLS side to reach the CONCACAF Champions League finals with a 3-2 aggregate victory over Saprissa.
Saprissa were on track to make up the deficit when winger Luis Diego Cordero fired them to a 1-0 lead in the opening minute of the second half. But an away goal by RSL central defender Jamison Olave nearly 15 minutes later equalized the score and deflated the home crowd with Saprissa facing the improbable task of scoring three unanswered to advance. They would score just one on a late penalty kick by Alonso Solís.
After a scoreless first half, Cordero’s goal electrified the sellout crowd right after the halftime break. The right winger converged toward the top of the box, bringing the ball onto his left foot and firing a shot which dipped under the crossbar and over RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando, who was screened on the play.
Needing just a goal to even the aggregate-goal series, Saprissa instead conceded a back-breaking equalizer to RSL in the 61st minute on a play the Costa Ricans were desperately looking to avoid due to RSL’s superior physical stature: the set piece. Javier Morales delivered a corner kick from the right side and, after pinballing in the box, the ball fell to Olave nearly the penalty kick marker and the reigning MLS Defender of the Year fired a first-time volley under the crossbar for the all-important away goal.
RSL expertly managed the remainder of the match and, after the Solís penalty in the 87th minute, Saprissa made a late surge but the MLS club held on for the 3-2 aggregate-goal win.
The first half had gone according to plan for RSL, as they kept Saprissa off the board. The team managed by Jason Kreis weathered the early buzzing attacks from the hosts before eventually settling down and enjoying some possession of their own.
Although Saprissa was the team having to make up a 2-0 aggregate-goal deficit, it was RSL with the best scoring opportunities of the first 45 minutes. In the 27th minute, captain Kyle Beckerman beat the offside trap and collected a chip pass from Andy Williams in the Saprissa box. But Beckerman’s point-blank shot was parried away by the ‘keeper Victor Bolivar.
RSL forward Alvaro Saborio, who was playing his first game in Costa Rica against his former club, had trouble holding the ball up top and winning challenges early on. With the whistling hiss of thousands descending upon his every touch, Saborío did prove a threat in the air on set pieces. His glancing header in the 32nd minute and a snap header in the 44th minute forced Bolivar into action.
Rarely was Saprissa dangerous in the first 45 minutes, a credit to the tactically compact RSL formation, which kept the “Purple Monster” attackers in front of them. The best looks for Saprissa came on shots from the perimeter of the RSL penalty area.
Center forward Josué Martínez saw Rimando save his shot in the 23rd minute and he fired high after 39 minutes. Four minutes before the break, left winger Jairo Arrieta sent a shot which barely missed the right post.
RSL advance to face a Mexican side in the final with Monterrey holding a 2-1 lead heading into their second leg semifinal at Cruz Azul on Wednesday night. The MLS side will play the first leg on the road in Mexico on April 20 and host the second leg at Rio Tinto Stadium on April 27.
SAP – Cordero 46’
RSL – Olave 61’
SAP – Solís PK 87’
RSL – Russell (caution), 45'
RSL – Olave (caution), 61'
SAP – Alonso (caution), 69'
Real Salt Lake: #18 Nick Rimando – Chris Wingert, #4 Jamison Olave, #6 Nat Borchers, #3 Robbie Russell -- #8 Will Johnson, #5 Kyle Beckerman (capt.), #11 Javier Morales, #77 Andy Williams (58’ #20 Ned Grabavoy) -- #15 Alvaro Saborio, #7 Fabian Espindola (79’ #10 Arturo Alvarez)
Subs Not Used: #24 Kyle Reynish, #28 Chris Schuler, #2 Tony Beltran, #12 Jean Alexandre, #23 Paulo Jr
Deportivo Saprissa (4-2-3-1 left to right): #1 Victor Bolivar -- #14 Roberto Wong , #3 Victor Cordero Flores (capt.), #31 Oscar Duarte, #21 Armando Alonso – #20 David Guzman, #15 Saul Phillip (64’ A. Aleman) -- #19 Jairo Arrieta, #8 Walter Centeno (86’ Alonso Solis), #33 Luis Diego Cordero – #28 Josue Martinez (70’ Alejandro Sequeira)
Subs Not Used: F. Gonzalez, G. Badilla, W. Phillips, Loaiza