SANDY — There will be games this season at Rio Tinto where Real Salt Lake runs circles around its opponents and sends the crowd home with free haircuts after scoring three-plus goals.
Saturday night was not one of those nights, and that was OK with coach Mike Petke. He refused to try to match New York’s aggressive mentality — which Albert Rusnak said is the best he’s played against — and instead focus on the three points.
On a chilly and at times snowy night, the mentality forced RSL to sit back and absorb pressure, but it worked.
Real Salt Lake benefited from an early penalty kick, a goal that held up the entire 90 minutes as it grinded out a 1-0 victory over the New York Red Bulls.
“If you look at the game, every time we have the ball, there’s four or five guys around one player and you can’t really play your kind of soccer … against that, so we chose a different game plan,” said Rusnak.
The plan was to sit deeper and not get stretched in the midfield like in last week’s 5-1 thrashing against Los Angeles FC.
New York controlled possession as a result, finishing with a 60-40 edge, but Petke didn’t care one bit afterward as his team picked up the first win of the season.
“This was entirely different after last week; this was about getting back to everybody working together, committing themselves to get back, defensive transition, and it didn’t matter how it looked at the end of the day. It’s a great three points, it’s a great response from our guys,” said Petke, whose team now sits at 1-1-1 heading into next week’s bye week.
Knowing opportunities would difficult to generate against New York’s pressure, it was a dream start for RSL when it was awarded a penalty kick just four minutes into the game.
The ref originally awarded RSL a free kick just outside the penalty area after New York defender Carlos Rivas dragged down David Horst. The instant replay official at Rio Tinto Stadium determined, however, that the foul occurred inside the penalty area and awarded the PK.
Rusnak chipped the PK straight down the middle for the 1-0 lead. Joao Plata usually takes RSL’s penalty kicks, but he was out with an injury and Rusnak planned on taking any PKs if they awarded and the plan was to always go down the middle.
He second-guessed himself briefly in the seconds before the penalty, but stuck with the plan and it worked perfectly as New York keeper Luis Robles dove to his left.
Albert converts from the spot!— Real Salt Lake (@realsaltlake) March 18, 2018
Like a boss pic.twitter.com/l3Hh8bYbSC
RSL didn’t create much else going forward the rest of the half as the Red Bulls enjoyed a huge 65-35 percent edge in possession.
“They’re biggest playmaker is their defensive pressure, numbers around the ball, counter pressing, and we didn’t want to get ourselves in that situation tonight,” said Petke.
Nick Rimando was charged on a couple of occasions it the first half, but made a couple of diving saves, finishing the game with four.
He picked up a slight injury in the first half, which forced Justen Glad to take the majority of the goal kicks, but the injury didn’t slow his ability to make saves when called upon.
“Fortunate he was able to finish the game, and he came up huge for us at times,” said Petke.
RSL played without two regulars up front as both Luis Silva and Joao Plata missed the match because of injury. Sebastian Saucedo and Alfredo Ortuno started in their place, and with New York’s pressure they had a difficult time settling into any type of rhythm.
The start was Ortuno’s first in an RSL uniform as he was signed in the offseason for his goal scoring ability. Opportunities to show off his ability were nil on Saturday.
“Alfredo obviously has an unbelievable track record. He’s scored a lot of goals, he’s got a name for himself, we did a lot of research on him. He hasn’t played in a full competitive match in a long time,” said Petke. “(Silva) going down yesterday and not being able to play forced us to move it along a little faster. I thought there were times when Alfredo did very well, and I thought there were obviously times where match sharpness and match fitness came into play for him.”
Brooks Lennon made an emergency start at right back with a glut of injuries along the back line, and was instrumental in helping keep the clean sheet despite a few poor giveaways.
New York had a great chance to potentially equalize late in the game when top goal scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips had a 1v1 chance with Rimando. Instead of shooting, he opted for the pass, and the defense was there to clean it up and preserve the shutout.
The schedule doesn’t let up for RSL after its upcoming bye week as it travels to defending league champion Toronto FC on March 30.