SANDY — For 60 stressful minutes on Saturday night, Real Salt Lake pushed the pace against 10-man Colorado desperately in search of a goal.
Colorado must’ve felt the stress of absorbing the pressure, too, because defender Tommy Smith had a major lapse in the 77th minute and essentially gifted RSL a goal and the win with a bizarre intentional handball in the box.
The handball wasn’t initially called on the field, but, in the current era of video replay in MLS, an intentional handball in the box will almost always get called. It eventually was, and Joao Plata buried the penalty kick in the 82nd minute, and the floodgates opened as Real Salt Lake pulled away for the 3-0 victory at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Damir Kreilach and Albert Rusnak tacked on a pair of late goals for RSL, which improved to 3-3-1 with the victory and moved into a tie for fourth place in the Western Conference standings.
“I’m very happy about three points; in this situation that was the most important thing for us. We need to keep fighting and concentrate for the next game against Vancouver,” said Kreilach.
Who knows how the game might’ve unfolded without two Colorado handballs that changed the entire complexion of the game.
The first came against Colorado keeper Tim Howard on a handball outside the ball in the 21st minute. It was the type of bang-bang play that sometimes happens, and a team can usually chalk it up to being unlucky.
Smith’s handball was anything but. Laying on the ground five yards in front of goal and with numerous players surrounding him, when the ball fell to Smith after a deflected shot, for some bizarre reason, he scooped the ball away with his hand.
None of the three officials on the field noticed Smith’s handball, but when the ball went out for a throw-in, the head official was alerted to the possibility of a handball by the video replay official, who suggested he review it.
Plata calmly stepped up and buried the penalty kick for his third goal of the season.
In the 60 minutes after Howard’s red card until Plata’s penalty kick, Real Salt Lake tried to patiently break down Colorado’s two banks of four players.
“When you’re playing against a team that’s a man down and sitting deep, you’ve gotta move the ball quick, side to side in order to create those gaps,” said RSL coach Mike Petke.
More and more of those gaps started opening up midway through the second half as Colorado’s backup keeper Zac MacMath found himself under a lot of pressure.
MacMath made six saves, and the stress level increased after each one for Petke.
“Yeah, it was a bit stressful. You look back to the second-to-last game last year in Colorado when it was 11 on 11, and they sat so deep and we had 30 something shots and couldn’t put one away,” said Petke.
After Plata’s goal, Kreilach doubled the advantage on a curling shot in the 89th minute. In stoppage time, Rusnak scored on a free kick around the wall that froze MacMath.
Coming off last week’s 4-0 loss at New York City FC, Petke was pleased with the result more than anything on Saturday.
“None of us are where we want to be right now, but we just won 3-0 against our conference rival, which is huge for us,” said Petke.
The first turning point on Saturday came on Howard’s red card. The U.S. National Team veteran came racing out of his box to try to beat Jefferson Savarino to a through ball from Rusnak, but Savarino got there first and tried rifling a 30-yard shot past Howard. The ball hit the forearm of Howard’s outstretched left arm, and the linesman immediately raised his flag.
Before the red card Colorado, utilized its customary five-man backline, but also played high pressure up top in trying to deny RSL the opportunity to build slowly out of the back. After Howard’s ejection, though, Colorado reverted to a four-man backline to not concede so much possession in the midfield.
At halftime, Petke inserted midfielder Pablo Ruiz for defender Danilo Acosta, and then in the 68th minute Corey Baird replaced Luis Silva. They helped keep the pressure on Colorado’s backline, which eventually cracked.
Real Salt Lake’s backline, which featured Nick Besler making his first start at center back, wasn’t threatened very much as Nick Rimando wasn’t forced to make a save.