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How the perfect game plan helped Real Salt Lake humble the Eastern Conference leaders

SANDY — After reeling off one superlative after another answering questions about Real Salt Lake’s big win over Philadelphia on Saturday, Albert Rusnak had the perfect response to another question about how well his team played.

“Overall it was a great performance, we could be here for another 10 minutes talking about how great everything was 'cause honestly I don’t think there was anything that went bad. Even VAR went with us today,” said Rusnak.

It was the type of performance that won’t soon be forgotten, the best of the season to date and perhaps the best of 2019 when it’s all said and done.

The fifth straight home win vaulted RSL back above the playoff line into sixth place in the Western Conference.

“We showed tonight that we’re one of the best teams in this league at home especially,” said Rusnak. “We can play against anyone here, and especially when we’re on a level like tonight we can beat anybody as well.”

On Saturday it humbled the best team in the Eastern Conference, but how did RSL do it? After all, Philadelphia is the second-highest scoring team in MLS this season and yet somehow didn’t even record a shot on goal and was rarely dangerous.

Philadelphia’s mediocrity is something RSL coach Mike Petke said his team deserves credit for.

“Because of how we played tonight and how on our players were I think that made them not look what you’d usually see because they’re a very good team,” said Petke.

The key was executing the game plan to a T.

“We hit on almost every avenue that we’ve worked on this week and every specific detail that we spoke about, with how narrow they are in the diamond and how interchangeable they are and to be aware not to be dragged in certain areas, and they followed it,” said Petke.

The diamond midfield is something RSL fans are very familiar with as it was coach Jason Kreis’ preferred approach during the heyday of RSL from 2009 to 2013. Wide play was always something that gave the club trouble in those days, and on Saturday it was the same type of wide play that gave Philadelphia’s diamond midfield fits.

The combination of wing players Sebastian Saucedo and Jefferson Savarino — who scored a brace — and then overlapping runs from wide backs Aaron Herrera and Brooks Lennon unsettled Philadelphia defensively throughout the game.

RSL’s defensive work over the 90 minutes was terrific and something that’s kind of become the norm again at the Riot.

Amid its five-game home winning streak Real Salt Lake has allowed just one goal in the past 450 minutes. It hasn’t allowed a goal in the past 280 minutes at home.

The last visiting team to score at Rio Tinto Stadium was Atlanta’s 79th-minute equalizer of a game back on May 24. Ironically enough, in that game against Atlanta, Savarino ended up scoring the 94th-minute winner on a scintillating strike that was similar to the goal he scored against Philadelphia on Saturday.

Defenses will learn soon enough that Savarino has a cannon for a right foot when given the slightest time to uncork a shot across the face of goal.

Savarino was sensational in scoring twice and setting up another in his second game back after playing with the Venezuelan national team in the Copa America in Brazil.

Through a translator he said the high level of international soccer has carried over to RSL.

“It’s always an honor to represent your national team and it’s always a very high level of play, and through that you raise your game and since I was able to continue play with my national team maybe longer than others, this last break allows me to keep that level and I hope I can bring it here,” said Savarino through a translator.

With leading scorer Sam Johnson out another six to eight weeks according to Petke, RSL needs Savarino to keep having performances like he did against Philadelphia to keep trying to climb up the Western Conference standings.