SANDY — A Colorado gaffe allowed Joao Plata to continue his torrid start to the MLS season.
The reigning MLS Player of the Month tacked on his easiest goal of 2016 in the 72nd minute walking a horrific Rapids miscue into the back of the net to secure Real Salt Lake’s 1-0 victory in the Rocky Mountain Cup first leg at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Plata now has four goals and three assists this season, but Saturday’s was clearly a gift.
Colorado should’ve easily cleared away Javier Morales’ hopeful long ball to Plata who was surrounded by two defenders and the charging keeper at the top of the box. Defender Axel Sjoberg misplayed the ball, however, chipping it over his keeper and straight into the path of Plata who basically walked in the goal.
After gifting Orlando and Portland goals last month, RSL was more than happy to be on the receiving end this time, improving to 3-0-2 this season — the lone unbeaten in MLS remaining after Orlando lost on Friday.
“It’s obviously important for confidence. We’re not trying to break the unbeaten streak or anything, we’re just trying to collect as many points as we can throughout the year,” said RSL coach Jeff Cassar.
The shutout was the first of the season for RSL, impressive considering it was on the back foot during stretches of the first half.
“We weren’t as sharp as we could’ve been and it kind of played into their hands a little bit and we were defending a little bit more,” said Kyle Beckerman.
Without clutch back-to-back saves by Aaron Maund and Nick Rimando late in the first half RSL could’ve easily been down a goal or two at the half.
In the 43rd minute, Maund cleared a long-distance shot from Shkelzen Gashi off the line with Rimando out of position following an awkward defensive sequence. Gashi tried to hammer the ball into the upper right corner of the net, but Maund dropped back and positioned himself perfectly without Rimando in goal to head it away.
Shortly before halftime, Rimando denied Luis Solignac on a breakaway opportunity.
Earlier in the half, Tony Beltran came up with a timely clearance and a timely tackle in the box.
“This game doesn’t give you that many opportunities. Tonight we had more opportunities than I think we’ve had all season and to not come away something in that first half was tough, really,” said Colorado coach Pablo Mastroeni.
At the other end of the field, RSL’s attack struggled against a compact Rapids defense in the first half. In fact, Yura Movsisyan’s half chance following fancy footwork by Juan Manual Martinez was the only real moment the Rapids were under duress.
“They have a defensive bite about their team that’s tough. We weren’t sharp on the ball tonight which makes scoring even tougher,” said Cassar.
RSL’s stagnant attack found some life after halftime, though, with Plata and Movsisyan, in particular, finding much for space to work with.
That led to several more chances, including Luke Mulholland sending a shot wide in the 60th minute and Plata earning a dangerous free kick just outside the box in the 61st minute.
In the 64th minute, Cassar added more firepower to the squad inserting Morales into the match in place of Mulholland. Morales broke a rib at Portland on March 19, but after sitting out last week’s match at Kansas City was deemed fit enough to make a contribution off the bench if necessary.
With a stroke of good luck, Morales delivered the unofficial assist less than 10 minutes after stepping onto the field.
In the 83rd minute, Movsisyan appeared to double the advantage by slipping in behind Colorado’s backline, but the linesman raised the flag for offside.
RSL stayed focused though at the other end and avoided conceding the late goals that have plagued it this season.
“It’s a good start for us, one we feel we still need to improve and get better. But we want to figure it out while we’re picking up some results and that what we’ve done so far,” said Beckerman.
Real Salt Lake returns to action next Saturday when it hosts Vancouver, which sits at 2-3-1 this season after falling to D.C. United 4-0 on Saturday.
Deseret News prep editor and Real Salt Lake beat writer. EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org