It seems like a theme in CONCACAF Champions League play: Real Salt Lake give up an early goal. They battle back, playing good soccer – not their best – but good enough. And then somehow they find out a way to get a result.
It’s happened in every match to this point, with the exception of the Cruz Azul match on the sloppy pitch in Mexico City – but it nearly happened there as well.
As a result, RSL are 3-1-1 in CCL play and, with their 1-1 draw against Toronto FC at BMO Field on Tuesday night, have clinched a spot in the knockout stages. Salt Lake still top Group A, and can win it with a victory at home on Oct. 19 against Cruz Azul.
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But perhaps the team’s habit of coming from behind is more concerning to the fans – who hold their breath for the rest of the match – than it is for the players.
“We’re not too worried about giving up the early goal,” explained midfielder Andy Williams. “We have the mentality that if we don’t worry about anything, don’t force the issue, play our style of game and our play will speak for itself. Eventually, we’ll get the goal.”
On Tuesday, Javier Morales came on in the second half, playing in his first match in 19 days with his side trailing by a goal, and managed to accomplish something that no other Real Salt Lake player has: Score a goal in Toronto.
The equalizing strike was a wonderful free kick from just outside of the area in the 68th minute. Morales is one of the most capable in the league from that spot, and didn’t disappoint, despite having been out for an extended period with a quadriceps strain.
The Argentine was able to get the ball up and over the wall, and headed toward the near post in a spot impossible for TFC ‘keeper Jon Conway to cover.
Williams was impressed with the quality.
“To tell you the truth, he and I were fighting for the free kicks,” said Williams. “A couple of days ago, he said he couldn’t kick at all. It’s a trust thing, and Javier’s the No. 1 free-kick taker on our team. And if he says he wants to take it and is confident, then I have faith in him.”
Coach Jason Kreis had put all in his eggs in this game’s basket as he wanted to clinch a spot in the CCL knockout stages now rather than let it linger and have his team potentially require a victory against Cruz Azul at Rio Stadium. To come away with a loss would have been a failure.
For much of the match, it appeared the result wasn’t going to come. Toronto chose a predictable approach against RSL, playing very compact defensively while giving the wings to the Salt Lake squad. They especially were intent on shutting down RSL striker Alvaro Saborio, who has been on a tear in Champions League action.
Toronto pounced quickly on a counterattack when given the chance, and put RSL down a goal after 20 minutes. Jacob Peterson’s breakout goal in a one-on-one with Chris Wingert was disappointing to Kreis.
“We didn’t take care of business like we normally do on a corner kick,” the coach told ESPN 700 Sports Radio after the game. “If they put a player high up, we put one directly in front of them, and one directly behind them.
"And I felt like we didn’t do that quite right. At the end of it all, Jacob Peterson made a nice individual play.”
Kreis was, however, happy with the team’s performance given the circumstances.
“We knew we were heading into a match with a lot of difficult circumstances, and a lot of baggage from the difficult travel situations,” he said. “So I was very, very pleased that we could put just enough effort in to get the result and advance.”
Real Salt Lake will now take a quick breath before heading into New England this weekend, and will now be able to focus on league play for the remainder of the season as they try to get a rhythm going prior to the start of the playoffs.