SANDY, Utah—After Real Salt Lake spent the first half of Sunday's Audi 2018 MLS Playoffs Western Conference Semifinal playing out of the back and keeping 70-percent possession, Sporting Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes had enough.
Aiming to put a little more pressure on the Salt Lake backline, his first substitution was inserting Diego Rubio. The replacement forward didn’t create the deflection on RSL 'keeper Nick Rimando's attempted clearance in the 61st minute, but did put it in the back of the net with his first touch of the game.
That not only equalized a match that finished 1-1, but also netted an important away goal ahead of the second leg.
“We talked about wanting to turn them over a little bit more closer to goal,” Vermes said. “[Diego] comes on. We turn it over right then. He took it and fires it away.”
The goal was Rubio’s 5th coming off the bench this season.
Rubio has started only 9 games, but ranks third on the team with 9 goals. Teammates believe his mentality and skill make Rubio an important sub, whenever he's called.
“Diego is a perfect example of what a teammate should be whether he starts or doesn’t start, he’s always a team-first guy,” said Kansas City defender Matt Besler. “He’s always focused, so that when he does get his opportunities, he makes the most of them. It came quicker than I thought it was going to come (tonight), but it was a really big goal and an excellent finish.”
Vermes values Rubio's ability to finish chances, whether through the run of play or off a deflected clearance.
“He’s deadly in-and around the box when he gets those kinds of opportunities,” Vermes said.
Next Sunday’s second leg (3pm ET | ESPN, TSN, TVAS) will provide another set of opportunities for Rubio and SKC to push the advantage, which they currently hold on the tiebreaker.
“There’s still a lot of work to do, it’s still anybody’s series to play for,” Besler said. “Do we feel good about having everything in front of us going home? Yeah we feel good. Our response was excellent, like it has been all year.”