SANDY, Utah – Making up a two-goal deficit was never going to be easy for Real Salt Lake in the second leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals series against Tigres UANL.
But they very nearly did it.
A 22nd-minute goal from Joao Plata put RSL on the verge of at least forcing extra time against the Liga MX powerhouse. But a few missed golden opportunities and then finally a stoppage-time goal by Tigres’ André-Pierre Gignac snuffed out any chances RSL had to advance to the semifinals and keep alive their dream of repeating the magic of the 2010-11 tournament when they advanced to the final.
"If you look back at every stat in that game we dominated," RSL head coach Jeff Cassar said after the match, a 1-1 draw that led to a 3-1 aggregate victory for Tigres. "We felt very comfortable at home, and I think we were the aggressors the entire game."
Thanks to its late kick, RSL entered the match as the final hope for an MLS team to go through to the next round after LA, Seattle and D.C. United were all previously eliminated.
And RSL appeared ready to carry the torch when their three forwards, Juan Manuel Martinez, Yura Movsisyan and Plata, combined on the opener and then took a firm grasp of the game for the next 65 minutes.
The goal stood out for its interplay considering the rest of RSL's chances that fell by the wayside.
Goalkeeper Nick Rimando found Martinez at the right side of midfield. Martinez cut inside evading defenders and found Movsisyan down the right side. Movsisyan played a low cross into the box for Plata, who snuck it past the ‘keeper for the early 1-0 lead and hope for the semifinal.
"As these guys get fitter and more comfortable, we're going to be able to attack like that and press like that," Cassar said. "We're going to be able to do more things and be sharper and be able to pull off more things because they have some really wonderful ideas in and around the box."
While RSL controlled the game better in the second half, the finishing spark was absent.
Off a soft header, Movsisyan found an open net at the far post in the 55th minute, but fired it off the crossbar.
And then Javier Morales stutter-stepped his way to a penalty kick save by Tigres ‘keeper Nahuel Guzman for the second saved penalty in the series.
"That goalkeeper is good," Cassar said. "He's very long, and if he goes down earlier it's in the goal.
"It's a PK, sometimes you get saved. It is what it is."
That was the pinnacle of worry for Tigres, who compose themselves enough to capitalize on RSL's worst gaffe of the game when miscommunication led to an open-net goal in the 90th minute.
"We passed through moments of trouble because these teams are very good," Tigres head coach Ricardo Ferreti said.
The best showing of their preseason is still a respectable way to drop out of CCL play and could be viewed as a positive sign for RSL's start to the 2016 MLS season.
"It's painful no matter what," Cassar said. "I couldn't be more happy and excited about what's ahead for this team if we have that effort from everyone."