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Quintessential Jefferson Savarino goal clinches playoff berth for Real Salt Lake, sends Nick Rimando out a winner

Real Salt Lake clinched a playoff berth for the second straight season with the 2-1 win against the Houston Dynamo.

Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando (18) makes a stop as Real Salt Lake and the Houston Dynamo play an MLS soccer match at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019.
Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando (18) makes a stop as Real Salt Lake and the Houston Dynamo play an MLS soccer match at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SANDY — During 30 sluggish minutes in the first half Sunday night, Real Salt Lake dug itself a hole, but Jefferson Savarino changed those fortunes with two scintillating touches on the ball in the second half.

His perfect first touch in the 75th minute and then blast from his sweet spot outside the box officially punched RSL’s ticket into the playoffs as it edged Houston 2-1 at Rio Tinto Stadium.

“His first touch was everything. You get into that area, within eight yards of the 18, your touch has to be that good because you don’t have much time and space and as soon as he took his touch and was able to get his head up he’s got a chance,” said RSL interim coach Freddy Juarez.

Savarino’s eighth goal of the season assured that Nick Rimando walked off the Rio Tinto Stadium pitch a winner one last time.

After the game, Rimando spoke at midfield for three minutes, thanking the fans for 13 incredible years with the club as chants of “Nick Rimando” echoed throughout the stadium and the massive tifo banner was unfurled again in the South stands.

“Awesome day, awesome night, great experience to share with my family, friends, all the fans here. So happy we got the result we needed, that makes it more special for sure,” said Rimando.

Real Salt Lake still has one regular season game remaining next week at Vancouver, and favorable results could land RSL a top four seed and a first-round home playoff game. For now though, it sits in fifth place in the Western Conference with 50 points and regardless of what happens next weekend, it’s guaranteed a top five finish.

It’s the first time RSL has reached the 50-point plateau since it finished with 56 points in 2014.

Savarino’s brilliant goal made it possible, strange that RSL needed such a late winner after a dream start to the match with Corey Baird scoring in the opening 34 seconds.

Baird sprinted in front of Darwin Cerén to take the ball away at the midfield stripe, and he continued his sprint all the way to the top of the box where he hammered a shot off the fingertips of Houston’s goalie into the back of the net.

It was the second fastest-goal in Real Salt Lake history, the fastest also coming against Houston back in 2014. In that game on the road, Javier Morales scored just 15 seconds into the match as he chipped Houston keeper Tally Hall.

Over the rest of the first half, complacency set in.

“I think we got real complacent thinking Houston’s a team that didn’t have much to play for, we went up 30 seconds in the game, we’re just going to roll over this team, it’s going to be easy, we’re at home, altitude, and games in this league aren’t always going to be easy no matter who you play,” said Baird.

Juarez said the biggest problem in the first half was RSL didn’t match Houston’s tactics, which forced it to chase the game and the players started to fatigue.

Houston’s wingers were pinching into the midfield giving the Dynamo as many as six players in the middle channel, and RSL didn’t respond with the proper pressure to change the numbers in the midfield.

“We weren’t managing who needs to step where, that was the biggest key we talked about prior to the game and we just didn’t handle that well,” said Juarez.

Houston had the clear edge in possession in the first half.

It had a goal overturned by VAR in the 22nd minute, a bizarre sequence in which a horrible giveaway from Rimando was followed by an immediate save from Rimando. Houston found the back of the net a few seconds later but it was overturned by offsides.

Ten minutes later the Dynamo scored again, but VAR couldn’t bail RSL out this time. The first mistake came from Aaron Herrera, who had a chance to play the ball up field to spring a 4v4 opportunity, but he made a careless pass straight to a Houston midfielder.

The Dynamo quickly got the ball into the box with Rimando making the initial save on a shot by Mauro Manotas, but he got beat near post on another shot from Tomás Martínez on the equalizer a few seconds later.

At halftime Juarez said the team sorted out who needed to pinch into the midfield to offset Houston’s numbers advantage and it made a huge difference in the second half as RSL dominated possession and eventually pulled out the win.

At halftime, the club recognized veteran defender Tony Beltran who announced his retirement earlier this month after 12 seasons with the club. Beltran was a regular for RSL most of his career, but he suffered a major knee injury at the end of the 2017 season which forced him to miss all of last year.

He rejoined the team this season but had some injury setbacks and never made an appearance.