Inspired showing from Claret-and-Cobalt stakes MLS side to a two-goal cushion ahead of the second leg in April, but the tie is far from over with a trip to Costa Rica looming.Real Salt Lake produced a comprehensive display to secure a 2-0 victory over Costa Rican powerhouse Deportivo Saprissa in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League semifinal series.
The result may not guarantee that the Claret-and-Cobalt will become the first MLS team to make the final during the brief Champions League era, but the overall performance suggests that Jason Kreis' side is well equipped to deal with the gigantic task ahead at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa in three weeks' time.
RSL's potent strike duo of Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola did the damage at the sharp end with goals either side of halftime, but, as per usual with this veteran squad, the final outcome stemmed from a complete team effort.
No spell in the match proved more important than the opening quarter of an hour. Kreis told reporters after the match that he wanted his starting XI to jump out of the gates and his charges duly complied to his wishes. RSL wrested control of the match from the outset and should have scored twice within the opening ten minutes.
Nat Borchers is probably still wondering why referee Enrico Wijngaarde chalked off his header after just six minutes, but RSL did not drop off after the peculiar setback and reaped the dividends of its persistence three minutes later.
RSL's potent strike duo combined once again for the opener. The in-form Andy Williams did the dirty work to dig out Jose Mena's poor clearing header into the middle of the field and quickly poked the ball to Espindola just outside the penalty area. The Argentine forward exposed the stretched Saprissa back four with his square pass to the right side and the prolific Saborio slotted home the tempting feed to open the scoring against his former club.
Saborio's opener should have spurred RSL onwards, but the early success and the related expenditure of emotion and energy permitted Saprissa to gain a foot hold in the contest after the opening quarter of an hour. Saprissa's improvement caused problems for RSL at the back as the Costa Ricans made use of their numerical advantage through midfield to push additional bodies forward.
It nearly paid off for the visitors, but, once again, the referee's whistle controversially intervened. Daniel Guzman poked home a seemingly valid square pass from close range after 24 minutes, but assistant referee Ricardo Morgan flagged for offside. The Costa Ricans were perplexed by the decision, but replays revealed the unorthodox outcome appeared correct with Jairo Arrieta behind the RSL line in the build up.
RSL's task became more complicated at halftime when influential defender Jamison Olave limped off with a hamstring injury. Promising center back Chris Schuler came on in his place and the Claret-and-Cobalt hardly missed a beat as they stuck to their task and limited a fairly dynamic Saprissa side as the match progressed.
Espindola capped his man-of-the-match performance by registering the vital second goal 11 minutes after halftime. The pesky striker forced a turnover in the middle third to start the move he eventually completed. Williams – influential in RSL's quarterfinal series against Columbus and prominent once again here – corralled the ball at midfield and played a sumptuous longball with the outside of his right boot to play Espindola into a one-versus-one situation at the edge of the penalty area. Espindola employed his less preferred right foot to cut back to the inside and slot home RSL's second on the evening.
On the balance of play, RSL deserved its cushion. Despite cobbling together several attacking forays in the final half an hour, the task quickly turned from building the lead to managing the game with a two-goal advantage secured.
Job one involved preventing Saprissa from tallying an all-important away goal during the second half. While the Costa Ricans displayed their quality only in flashes on the evening, they did force Rimando into an important double save on 64 minutes to maintain the advantage and tried to muster similar moves as the match progressed.
The breakthrough never arrived for the visitors as RSL relied on its superiority in possession – despite playing four against five in midfield – and its tidiness in defense to see out the tie. The overall result brought credit to every player in a claret shirt, but Borchers' imperial performance at the back, Kyle Beckerman's dogged holding work, Espindola's endeavor and Williams' continued creativity deserve special commendation.
Similar performances will be required when Kreis brings his side to Costa Rica for the second leg next month. Greater teams with more significant advantages have wilted in the face of playing in such an imposing venue. The artificial surface likely won't play to RSL's strengths and the intense surroundings will create an daunting atmosphere for even this seasoned squad to overcome. Saprissa will no doubt present sterner opposition as well, though it appears there are pervasive defensive shortcomings for RSL exploit in the quest for a decisive away goal.
Those concerns, however, loom off in the distance. In the wake of this victory to draw ever closer to a spot in the final, it is more than enough for RSL to bask in the glow of a job well done and believe that this group possesses the necessary constitution to succeed where so many others have failed.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.Follow Goal.com on to get the latest soccer news directly. Check out Goal.com's page; be part of the best soccer fan community in the world!