Real Salt Lake chased the game at Colorado as soon as the whistle blew. Victims of a 1-1 draw to the New York Red Bulls earlier this week, the claret and cobalt visitors knew the only way to set the tone on Saturday, August 2 in a Rocky Mountain Cup rivalry game of such magnitude was to go at their rivals.
And so they did, as their forwards, Devon Sandoval and Robbie Findley, made a beeline for the Rapids central defender Drew Moor, looking to disrupt his initial service 40 yards up-field to the opposite side of the pitch--potentially speedster Deshorn Brown--at Dick's Sporting Goods Park.
The turf itself was dry, a byproduct of a Colorado Rapids team wanting to play kick-and-chase that set up in a 4-2-3-1, the alignment du jour for most world-class clubs since the World Cup. Does it work? Yes, but it's kind of predictable.
The Rapids obvious tactics played right into the hands of Real Salt Lake, who won 1-0 Saturday to take the Rocky Mountain Cup rivalry trophy back to Utah.
Once the Rapids had the ball, they had no time to keep it. Colorado wanted to play hot potato on a warm night at high altitude, but RSL had the horses to chase the Rapids all over the park--even at 4,900 feet.
RSL compressed the spaces in which the Rapids played, making it a game of small-ball--something Colorado isn't accustomed to doing. Something else made this game one similar to that which earned RSL a 1-1 draw against New York--an all-out attacking mindset from the opening whistle.
In one telling early sequence, RSL gained possession on the right wing near the center of the field. Even left defender Chris Wingert and left midfielder Ned Grabavoy had vacated their spots out wide, surging towards where all the action was.
Real Salt Lake would see all this pressure and compactness pay off soon enough. Nine minutes in, Sandoval applied pressure to a Colorado defender, who mishit a ball.
RSL midfielder Luis Gil collected the carom, awkwardly stepping over a Colorado player as he side-footed a half-volley into Findley, who fired a one-timer at the Rapids goal. Leaping to his left, Rapids keeper Clint Irwin punched away the shot with his outstretched left hand at the near post.
Another heavy touch further up-field by Colorado minutes later resulted in RSL regaining possession in the 13th minute. The claret and cobalt passed and moved down towards the Colorado's end, sending a diagonal ball 25 yards into space for Findley on the left wing.
RSL had compressed the pitch and shifted all of its players from the edge of the center circle towards the touchline, and so switching the point of attack was the right thing to do.
In any case, the Rapids defense wasn't ready. Moor scrambled back, attempting to blast a half-volley up a right wing under heavy attack, but RSL defender Chris Wingert collected the scraps of Moor's delivery, heading it back towards Moor's area.
Rapids defender Marvell Wynne, in a fight against space and time, tried up help his fallen teammate Moor. but Wingert had other plans, putting in a two footed slide tackle before Wynne arrived.
In two movements, Wingert arose to his feet at the left edge of the 18-yard-box and played a square pass into RSL midfielder Javier Morales--who was running into the Rapids box between two Rapids midfielders who were desperately trying to clear the ball away from danger.
With animated Rapids coach Pablo Mastroeni screaming instructions at anyone on his team who would listen, Morales cut the ball back to the inside of his left foot, ripping a low-driving bender towards the near post. Irwin had no chance in saving it as it curled into the net for a 1-0 lead just 14 minutes into the game.
“The first 15 minutes or so, we were moving the ball and able to get it in different areas. Then there was a period of time where they had the ball and we had to defend. We did well and kept our composure, and then towards the end of the half, we were able to do the same. It was great work by [Chris] Wingert to pressure the ball in the back. It was just hard work all around," Findley said post-game.
RSL had to be up to the task from then on though--because life on the road, in this rivalry game, was about to become lots more difficult. In the 27th minute, a Colorado corner kick turned into a ball bouncing aimlessly towards the edge of RSL's six-yard-box--before it was headed by a Rapids player back towards RSL's goalmouth.
But Brown--who spun off RSL defender Aaron Maund in that dangerous area and found himself open--saw a half-volley chance at point blank range fly over RSL keeper Nick Rimando's head and into the stands.
Another close call was averted in the 45th as the Rapids continued to boom the ball over the top towards Brown. On this occasion, however, Brown won the ball from Morales, spinning around the RSL midfielder before playing a through ball into Rapids midfielder Vincente Sanchez.
Avoiding RSL defender Nat Borchers with a deft outside cut to his left, Sanchez sped towards RSL's goal as Maund sped towards Sanchez. Maund has had a rough year, evidenced by a lack of playing time (five games) now that Chris Schuler worked his way back into the starting 11.
Sanchez took a long touch forward as he neared the edge of RSL's penalty box, but Maund--in full stride towards Sanchez and the last player besides Rimando--couldn't avoid the Rapids midfielder as he and Sanchez collided, resulting in a straight red card for Maund.
Brown and the rest of the Rapids attack continued to make life interesting for RSL. In the 60th minute, 10-man RSL was surely backpedaling. A cross deep in RSL's end from the right flank sent Brown skyward, but his flicked on header was easily corralled by Rimando.
In the end, Rimando got his league-tying 112th shutout after months of coming up short, but not before Brown got one last great look at RSL's goal.
In the dying moments, Brown again nimbly scooted past another RSL defender--this time around Borchers and just outside the right edge of the 18-yard-box. Brown uncorked a laser beam one-hopper at RSL's goal along Dick's Sporting Goods Park's hard, unforgiving ground.
Rimando was not be to denied though, scrambling to his right to deflect this awkward on-target shot ambling towards RSL's net. Rimando smothered his parry attempt, making history in the process.
What a year it has been for Rimando, who now with the help of his hard working Real Salt Lake teammates will also take home the Rocky Mountain Cup for the first time in two years.