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Defensive commitment allows Real Salt Lake to pull away from Vancouver Whitecaps

SANDY — In the buildup to Saturday’s home match, Real Salt Lake coach Mike Petke was asked about his team’s attack and what's contributed to the early-season struggles. He was quick to deflect his response toward the need for a better defensive commitment from his players.

“Right now, we’re concentrating on keeping the ball out of the net … and then from there we’ll move into playing how we want to play.” said Petke.

The response led to a predictable approach against visiting Vancouver, as RSL sat a little deeper and took fewer risks going forward, but it was effective.

Real Salt Lake bounced back from a disappointing performance in Toronto last week — which had Petke talking a lot about the mentality of his team — with a gutty 2-1 win over the Whitecaps in front of 16,015 on a wet and chilly night at Rio Tinto Stadium.

“The effort and the defensive structure was there tonight, and I’m proud of the guys for that tonight,” said Petke.

As Petke hoped with the increased defensive commitment, the attack grew increasingly more effective as the match wore on. Luis Silva eventually scored late in the first half, and then Jefferson Savarino late in the second half in building the 2-0 lead.

Vancouver substitute Brek Shea spoiled a second straight home shutout with a stoppage-time goal, but it was a blip RSL can live with considering the quality defensive effort over the 90 minutes.

“We did a good job of sharing the workload too defensively and just frustrated them. I think it worked out at the end of the day,” said Silva.

RSL’s backline faced adversity almost immediately on Saturday.

In the opening minute of the game Demar Phillips’ ankle got rolled up on near the corner flag, and he was eventually subbed off in the 13th minute as Adam Henley made his RSL debut on the opposite side of his more natural right back position.

In the 40th minute, Marcelo Silva injured his groin lunging to clear a Kei Kamara pass out for a corner kick. He immediately signaled for a sub, with David Horst quickly entering the match.

Regardless of who played along the backline in the early going, it was a sloppy performance at times in building the attack with numerous passes going straight to Vancouver players. The reaction from RSL was quick, though, as the players prevented any self-inflicted wounds.

RSL’s attack struggled as well early in the first half, but Albert Rusnak effectively changed that on multiple occasions deeper into the first half. He made a concerted effort to hold the ball up in the midfield to allow his wingers time to get higher up field into the attack. The shift paid dividends in the 45th minute.

Shortly after Jefferson Savarino was dispossessed in the box on a decent opportunity — much to the chagrin of Savarino who wanted a penalty kick called — Luis Silva found a pocket of space in the box to receive a Brooks Lennon cross and quickly converted it for the 1-0 lead.

Silva made a quick turn to buy a little more time to shoot, with his shot deflecting off Vancouver’s Jakob Nerwinski as it sent keeper Stefan Marinovic in the wrong direction.

“We talk a lot … about recognizing when to go full force at goal in transition, which we’re pretty good at, but recognizing when that’s not on and pulling out and possessing it. It wasn’t a tactical thing I was yelling out from the sideline … Albert is a smart player, and he took that upon himself,” said Petke.

The second half got fairly chippy, with RSL getting whistled for a bunch of fouls. Realistically, though, the style prevented Vancouver from building a rhythm in the second half and bagging the equalizer with RSL leading 1-0 most of the half.

In the 88th minute, RSL doubled its advantage with Damir Kreilach playing a ball into space for Corey Baird, who tracked it down and then cut it back just before it went over the endline for Savarino who easily finished for the 2-0 lead.

The start was the first of Baird’s career, as Petke gave him the not of Joao Plata.

“He’s an honest, hard-work, talented player. It’s not just all about hard work and strong mental, you have to have the ability to play with the ball, and he has all that. And I want to reward him, I have to reward him, and I thought he did very well tonight,” said Petke.

Baird spent a lot of the night tracking back defensively and helping limit Vancouver’s transition game, which was the big defensive concern coming in.

Real Salt Lake has a quick turnaround as it travels to East-leading New York City FC on Wednesday.