Real Salt Lake surprises champs with 3-2 road victory.Real Salt Lake had scored just nine goals on the road all season, and the Columbus Crew had scored a single goal in the last five games, but throw that all out the window – this is the playoffs. Columbus came into this one with a one-goal deficit in the aggregate goal series, needing to best Real Salt Lake by two goals to be sure of moving on to the Eastern Conference finals.
The two teams came out clearly struggling to force the game into the pace of their liking. Real Salt Lake initially tried to slow the pace of the game down and pick their opportunities carefully. Columbus wanted to force the issue and create opportunities.
Real Salt Lake knew that with Guillermo Barros Schelotto in the lineup, set pieces could be deadly. And five minutes in, Columbus had two dangerous set piece opportunities, but both went awry.
It appeared that RSL might be the first team to light up the board in the ninth minute. Against the run of play, Javier Morales collected a ball and immediately turned up field, catching the defender off guard who assumed he would play it into negative space. Morales then played a nice ball to teammate Andy Williams, who had timed his run perfectly. Williams collected the ball behind the defense, but was too slow getting it off of his foot, and Crew ‘keeper Will Hesmer easily got in front of the ball to deflect the shot away.
The action continued at a moderate pace for the next few minutes, with Columbus dominating possession. In the 19th minute, a freak goal put the Crew ahead (tied for the aggregate). The goal came off a free kick from 35 yards out. Schelotto hit the ball well and it appeared headed toward a teammate about 10 yards out, but instead sailed over everyone, hitting the ground and bounding into the net. RSL ‘keeper Nick Rimando was caught flat-footed as he appeared to expect a deflection on the play, but it didn’t come.
About 15 minutes later, the Crew took control of the series as Schelotto notched another one. This time it came off of a poor clearance by Salt Lake defender Robbie Russell. His muffed clearance was deflected by Schelotto, who then received the ball back at the top of the box. His left-footed shot bent and found its way just inside the right upright.
With Real Salt Lake’s poor road performance, it appeared that was likely the signal of the end of the line for the visitors, but they showed some road grit in the final ten minutes of the half. Two minutes after the second Crew goal, Real Salt Lake netted one of its own. The play was a lovely buildup with numerous quick passes between Williams, Morales and captain Kyle Beckerman. The final pass came from Beckerman with a short chip over the defense to Morales, kept on by shoddy positioning from Crew captain Frankie Hejduk. The Argentine kept his shot low and snuck it under the arm of Hesmer for the goal, bringing RSL back within one for the game and level for the series.
Both teams continued fighting through the second half as it was apparent that each team’s season was at stake. The game, however, headed for a draw until defender Hejduk took down forward Fabian Espindola in the box, off of a long free kick from Morales. A penalty was called, and forward Robbie Findley took up the position at the penalty spot. His low, delayed shot to the left easily beat Hesmer, who guessed wrong on the play. Both teams entered the tunnel at the half tied 2-2 with Columbus down a goal in the series aggregate.
The start of the second half resembled the start of the first stanza. Columbus was again intent on getting the series equalizer. In the 52nd minute they nearly got it. Schelotto put a long free kick into the box which was headed down by Chad Marshall, and Eric Brunner appeared set to tap it in as he was ahead of Findley chasing the ball. The central defender instead allowed the ball to trickle between his legs into the grateful hands of Rimando.
In the 71st minute Real Salt Lake nearly pushed the series lead forward off of a Morales corner kick. Powerful center back Jamison Olave was left unmarked and put a strong directed header on the ball, but it went just to the outside of the far post.
The game opened up dramatically as the second half neared its midway point. Second half substitute forward Yura Movsisyan nearly capitalized on a counter attack, as he had the ball near the endline running at his marker. He made a couple of fakes with the ball, and then pulled the string on a left-footed shot that Hesmer managed to get a hand on it for a corner kick.
As it turned out, the corner was a deadly one for the Crew. It was played short to Williams who turned and whipped it into the box towards Beckerman. It slid between the legs of both Beckerman and Eddie Gaven and fooled Hesmer, who dove late allowing the ball to trickle into the far corner of the net. The goal put RSL up 3-2 and up by two goals in the series.
The rest of the match was desperation by Columbus, who could not turn any of their opportunities into serious danger. When the referee blew the final whistle, the upset was complete, with Real Salt Lake now set to wait for the winner of the New England and Chicago series to determine their Eastern Conference finals opponent.
Randy Davis is the Salt Lake correspondent for Goal.com
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