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Real Salt Lake overcomes major scare against minor-league team

SANDY — The usual drum-pounders, smoke-makers and face-painters were in short supply Tuesday at Rio Tinto Stadium.

So were star players in general.

That’s because the outcome didn’t really matter.

On second thought, yes it did.

Real Salt Lake coach Jeff Cassar made sure his players understood at halftime. They got the message in a 2-1 win over Sounders 2 in U.S. Open Cup play. When the meaningful trophies come as seldom as they do for RSL, you jump on opportunities like stink on a fish.

Against whomever you’re facing, whenever you can.

Cassar did his best to approximate a really important game. He started a few of the main players, such as Joao Plata and Luis Gil. He talked beforehand about the importance of the U.S. Open Cup. At the same time, with four games in 14 days, he wasn’t about to throw caution to the wind.

Instead, he did just enough. Which was a good thing. Real has only one trophy in its 11 years of existence. After falling behind 1-0 in the first half Tuedsay night, you had to ask: Is there at least an award for Mr. Congeniality?

And should a major league team be losing to a USL team two years in a row?

Answer: If so, it’s not major league.

As much as they wanted to pretend otherwise, Real Salt Lake’s most experienced players couldn’t have viewed Tuesday night’s U.S. Open Cup match with Sounders FC2 with much awe. They were matched against the up-and-comers from the Seattle Sounders’ minor league club. It’s the deep woods equivalent of Salt Lake’s Real Monarchs.

The Open Cup is like the old Indiana state basketball championship, where all divisions play in the same tournament.

Still, that’s the appeal of the Open Cup. Anyone has a chance. RSL made it to the championship game two years ago, before losing at home to D.C. United. Last year the Claret-and-Cobalt lost to the minor league Atlanta Silverbacks.

The tourney is played concurrent with the MLS regular season. This is truly foreign to teams in other American sports. Imagine the Yankees interrupting their regular season schedule to play the Peoria Chiefs.

So there’s a certain amount of Hickory High romance to it.

But when you consider yourself an elite-level franchise, but have won only one trophy in 11 years of existence (the 2009 MLS Cup), these things matter.

“We have an Open Cup game coming and we need to win this game to get confidence,” Javier Morales noted beforehand.

You could have fooled everyone in the first half, after S2’s Sam Garza put his team up 1-0 in first-half stoppage.

“I think everyone in the room knew it wasn’t good enough,” Cassar said, “and everyone in the stadium knew it wasn’t good enough.”

Even with a pared down roster — Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando didn’t even suit up, while Morales and Alvaro Saborio didn’t enter until the second half — Salt Lake should have been better. The start was embarrassingly slow.

“That’s what we talked about the whole entire time, was not to start like that,” Cassar said.

It’s not like S2 should have been a problem. On Tuesday the visiting roster included three 17-year-olds, three 18-year-olds and one 19-year-old.

“This is an opportunity of a lifetime for these kids,” S2 coach Ezra Hendrickson told Sounders FC.com.

Salt Lake had its youth on display, too.

But it also had business to take care of.

For Real, the match was partly about regaining confidence. RSL hadn’t won since May 23 and settled for a 0-0 draw at home on June 7 against cellar-dwelling Colorado. RSL’s 18 points this year has the team in ninth place in the West, just one slot out of the basement.

Tuesday was part of a run of closely compacted games. Open Cup isn’t as important as league play, but two years ago, RSL made it to the championship game, losing 1-0 to DC United. Then came last year’s loss. The frustration was clear.

Real has only the one MLS Cup trophy in its collection.

That should have been plenty of motivation on Tuesday.

With league games awaiting against rival Kansas City and New York, RSL couldn’t easily go all-out in this match. So coach Cassar hedged his bet, so to speak, and it worked. Plata and Morales got goals in the second half to secure the win.

As midfielder Luis Gill — a kid himself at 21 — put it before the game, “You want to win any tournament there is.”

You could have fooled everyone for a while on Tuesday. But in the end, Cassar had both preserved his aging veterans and survived another shocking upset.

In light of the scare, maybe it mattered more than they thought.

Email: rock@desnews.com; Twitter: @therockmonster; Blog: Rockmonster Unplugged