Seemed like a good strategy, in theory, for the league-leading Sounders. RSL came into the game scoring more goals in the first half of games than it does in the second. And the Sounders do have more weapons of mass destruction on their roster than any other team in Major League Soccer.
It's just that on Sat. Aug. 16, the application of said theory didn't work. Real Salt Lake didn't cooperate one iota, scoring twice early in the second half to hang on for a 2-1 victory on a balmy afternoon at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Real Salt Lake also had its share of looks early on--which probably compounded matters for Seattle in yet another stirring rendition of the Real Salt Lake-Seattle Sounders rivalry. In the second minute, RSL played a little Tiki-Taka in the middle third, finding angles of space before midfielder Kyle Beckerman played a switch ball into forward Joao Plata.
From the left wing Plata took the ball on a bounce, weaved past two Sounders defenders and turned on the afterburners as he approached goal, firing a shot at the near post that Sounders 'keeper Stefan Frei dove upon.
The smiling assassin and RSL's leading scorer would walk back with a grin--perhaps knowing more was yet to come. He was right on that account, because not more than 15 seconds later, Plata got the ball back again--nearly in the same spot as before.
This time, however, Plata saw midfielder Luke Mulholland making a run towards the far post and chipped it over the Sounders back line. The timing couldn't have been any better, as Mulholland volleyed Plata's offering towards goal--but it sailed over the crossbar for a goal kick.
17 more minutes would pass before RSL threatened Seattle's goal--but Plata was again on the doorstep. In this sequence, Beckerman chipped a long ball down the right side towards forward Olmes Garcia, a player who is slowly rounding back into form.
Garcia collected the ball on a dead sprint outside Seattle's penalty box and took it to the end line. There he cut the ball back against his body, sending a dangerous ball into the Sounders' 6-yard box--where Plata happened to be making his run.
Plata nearly slid headfirst into the far post, striving with all of his might to meet the ball. Yet it wasn't to be for Plata, as the ball caromed out of play.
Three good chances for Plata resulted in zero goals for the Ecuadorian in 20 minutes, and that happy demeanor of his was replaced with frustration as he snapped his fingers and rolled his eyes in disgust. You can see why; all three chances missed by mere inches.
On the next big scoring chance just before halftime, RSL had a role reversal of sorts. Midfielder Ned Grabavoy played a little 1-2 into Garcia, who played it back to Grabavoy. On a dime, Grabavoy sent a through ball searing into open space behind the Sounders back four.
Garcia was again on the prowl, flying past a Sounders defender as he dribbled towards the end line. This time though, instead of going all the way to the end line Garcia did a smart thing. He played a low, bouncing diagonal ball towards the far post.
As you know, the grass is watered at Rio Tinto Stadium before each match and at halftime. Doing so in a desert environment like Utah's ensures that the ball will play to RSL's liking, fast and unpredictably. Perhaps knowing the Sounders might struggle with a diagonal pass across their goalmouth, Garcia sliced into the ball, which took a Rio Tinto hop as it entered the six-yard-box.
Frei tried in vain to dive and corral the squirming ball, which then bounced up and into the leg of Sounders defender Chad Marshall, who was barely able to clear it out of danger, just behind Plata--who was standing at the far post waiting to tap in Garcia's pass.
By halftime, RSL had a slew of shots--compared to just one for the Sounders. Going into the second 45 minute stanza though, RSL came out of the lion's gate looking to score just as it had tried to do in the first 45.
In the 52nd minute, Plata would get another opportunity. Just outside the right side of the Sounders penalty box deep, Luke Mulholland curled an outswinging free kick towards the far post. The ball swirled past the six yard box, past giants like Chris Schuler and Nat Borchers who routinely score headers for RSL.
Plata, the tiniest and most unlikely man to score with his head off of any corner kick or free kick, found himself alone at the corner of the six-yard-box, unmarked for a split second. He somehow wriggled free of the defender that towered over him, tensed his neck muscles and nodded the ball towards the goal.
Frei had no chance. The upper netting was the only thing stopping this ball from going places. Plata finally got his goal Saturday, his second header in as many games mind you, and RSL had a 1-0 lead. Four minutes later the breakthrough came, and Plata wasn't done making highlights.
The Sounders back four--which allowed nine shots, five on goal--tried to play a ball into its midfield. But Plata was there to cut it out, winning the ball in the process and RSL was on the move.
Off balance somewhat but still able to get a touch, Plata immediately chopped a ball into Luis Gil, who was posited at the top of the 18-yard-box. Gil, whose play the other night against Club Tijuana created some late fireworks, was a bit more quiet on Saturday filling in for an injured Javier Morales.
Gil played a special ball on this occasion though. He spun and danced around one Sounders defender, playing a soft touch to the outside of his right foot. At the same time, Mulholland was sprinting on a diagonal run from his right wing position towards the penalty spot, trying to fight off two Sounders players.
Gil nutmegged one defender, playing a through ball between the Sounder's legs into Mulholland, who squeezed his body between the two Sounders who were chasing after him. Mulholland lurched forward, getting enough of a toe on the ball to send it towards goal. The ball dribbled into side netting for a 2-0 lead, 57 minutes into the game. Plata had done his job, and a smile returned to his face as he and his teammates celebrated having the lead over the league-leading Sounders.
"Obviously, it’s not about one individual, for sure, but Joao [Plata] is playing at an extremely high level every game. He’s being consistent," RSL head coach Jeff Cassar said post-game. "Obviously, I love balls going in the back of the net, but I appreciate his work on the defensive side as well. Whether it’s helping out a defensive midfielder or chasing an outside back, he’s playing at an extremely high level right now.”
Now all RSL needed to do was hold off the Sounders potent attack, the most dangerous strike force in MLS. Even without Obafemi Martins who was suspended for this game, Seattle was still dangerous with Clint Dempsey lurking.
In the 72nd minute--and with RSL successfully having killed off 15 minutes of action--Dempsey would get involved. Sounders forward Kenny Cooper--paired up top with Dempsey--executed a delightful stepover fake, which sent defender Tony Beltran going the wrong way near his right sideline.
Cooper's move sent oohs through Rio Tinto Stadium, and moments later the former US soccer team star drove a low cross into RSL's box from the left flank. The combination of Cooper's well executed turn and drive sent the remaining two RSL defenders backpedaling--both named Chris (Schuler and Wingert).
The ball somehow bounced in a space between Schuler and Wingert, but neither player knew what to do. Sounders midfielder Andy Rose got a touch, which bounced towards an onrushing Dempsey, who also took a touch and tried to toe-poke the ball past a sliding Nick Rimando, RSL's 'keeper.
Rimando got his glove to the ball, but it bounced back up towards Rose, who one-timed his header. The ball struck the far post though and Sounders player Chad Barrett was there, johnny on the spot, to finish the play and cut RSL's lead to 2-1.
“It was my fault. What happened was the ball was played in behind [Chris] Schuler a little bit, so I was afraid. I should have just told him to get it, obviously they scored, but what happened was I was afraid he was going to have to clear it out for a corner, and I had a better angle on it," Wingert said post-game. "I didn’t realize that [Andy] Rose was right on me, so I tried to swing it up the field thinking that I had the better angle, so I called him off and then [Andy] Rose, I’d have to watch it again, but I think he just reached in and blocked it and it kind of went in.”
It would be the only costly mistake RSL would make between any of its players on Saturday afternoon. The claret and cobalt, now a team to be reckoned with despite not having Alvaro Saborio and Morales, avenged the 4-0 drubbing it suffered in Seattle earlier this season.