Heading into the decisive second leg of their Western Conference Semifinal at Sporting Kansas City, it appeared Real Salt Lake entered with a razor-thin margin of error – their ace playmaker, top striker and a starting center back all on the shelf.
As it turned out, Sunday's game – and the tie – were there for the taking because of some unusually shaky home side performances.
Tim Melia was a wobbly presence in the Sporting goal, coughing up a couple of uncharacteristic rebounds. Ike Opara made a couple of poor plays in his own area, generously teeing up a couple of great chances for the visitors. Veteran fullbacks Seth Sinovic and Graham Zusi each made errors you wouldn't expect, freeing up flank lanes and leaving the back post uncovered, respectively. In midfield, Roger Espinoza was sloppy.
Yet a few crucial lineup choices by RSL head coach Mike Petke didn't turn in his team's favor, leaving them trailing early and ultimately sealing the 4-2 loss (5-3 aggregate) in the closing minutes.
The best player RSL had to do without on Sunday was suspended No. 10 Albert Rusnak. Petke opted to slide Damir Kreilach into that role, one he played quite well in what proved to be their playoff ticket-punching win over New England just four weeks ago.
On this night, however, the versatile Croatian was ineffective atop the midfield triangle before being moved up top at the break. Bottled up by Ilie, Kreilach was unable to complete a single final third pass in the opening frame. He managed a couple of area shot attempts, but both were fully smothered by Sporting defenders.
Lone forward pick Luis Silva didn't fare even that well and got the halftime hook. He barely touched the ball, and was far too easily caught and dispossessed on the one occasion when he got behind the defense to receive a through pass.
Sebastian Saucedo was brought on to start the second half and handed the attack keys, while Kreilach slid forward to offer his physical and effective brand of false-ninery. Thanks to those related maneuvers, Real Salt Lake finally perked up at the hour mark. Each of those guys grabbed a goal to make Sporting KC sweat profusely until Daniel Salloi nailed the visitors' 2018 coffin shut by scoring the capitalistic stoppage-time capper.
In central defense, with top center back Justen Glad continuing to ride the pine, Petke paired two players who had never played together before in the heart of defense.
Nick Besler and Nedum Onuhoa have proven to be solid – and each came up big with important stops when tested by 1-v-1 situations. In particular, Onuhoa's strong tackle prevented a Johnny Russell jailbreak close to intermission.
"As a coach, you have many tough decisions to make looking at matchups, who you feel is more in form, who you feel can impact this game a bit," Petke said. "Going back to Nick’s performance the last time we played them, the 1-1 tie here, it was a very tough decision. Justen has played 33 games for us this year, and Justen is still a huge part of our future. But coaches have to make tough decisions and it was the decision I went with."
But when Besler and Onuoha had to operate in tandem, everything fell apart. They were split time and again by Sporting KC passes and runners, with some of the lanes they allowed up the gut big enough to drive a plane through. The first bad omen came just eight minutes in, when a miscommunication between the two freed Salloi for an free shot from 10 yards. He missed the net that time, but the die were already being cast.
Near the quarter hour, they inexplicably failed to track Felipe Gutierrez running through Zone 14 onto a Russell lead ball that came from near the midfield stripe. Making matters even worse, Onuoha didn't track Diego Rubio's complimentary channel run; that slack allowed the striker to fire Sporting to its first lead of the tie.
Just five minutes later, they left the barn door wide open again. Gutierrez slipped a pass through the chasm, and Salloi happily collected it with plenty of room to double the home team's aggregate edge.
Shortly after Saucedo halved the lead to give RSL life, the center back strangers conspired to pave Sporting KC's path to goal one last fatal time: Gutierrez again split them with a throughball, forcing Onuoha to bring down Rubio in the box. One Sanchez panenka later, and the hosts had their winner.
Far from being on the same page, Besler and Onuoha weren't even in the same book on the day. In an away second leg playoff match, already shorthanded, that helped tip the scales toward SKC.