Two Real Salt Lake men who don’t score a lot notched the goals of their lifetime Thursday as the measurably smaller-budget club from Utah took down the two-time defending MLS champion LA Galaxy.
Sebastian Velasquez’s first-half goal supplied a huge psychological lift to RSL, a header that held up for the 1-0 win over 90 minutes of the teams’ second leg in this Western Conference semifinal playoff series. That leveled the aggregate score at 1-1 and sent the game into a 30-minute extra time.
Chris Schuler’s second career goal, off a precision free kick from Javier Morales, made the score 2-0 on the night, handing Real Salt Lake the series and a date in the conference finals against Portland or Seattle.
The Galaxy was bidding to come Major League Soccer’s first team in 18 years to win three consecutive titles. It also broke a streak of six consecutive conference semifinal series wins for the Galaxy.
Real Salt Lake had to play the final 10 minutes of extra time a man down after striker Alvaro Saborio limped off. His hip flexor aggravation left the team short because manager Jason Kreis had already used all three substitutions.
Sean Franklin, who had scored the first-leg goal in Los Angeles, the big strike that had put so much pressure on Kreis team, had the Galaxy’s final chance. His stabbing header from close-range bounced just wide, another missed chance in 180 minutes that had so many of them for the champions.
Velasquez, among RSL’s young stable of talent, scored the goal of his career (by a long way) when he was left free to head home Chris Wingert’s cross in the 35th minute.
It was such an important goal psychologically for RSL, with so much trouble scoring goals lately, and a team that had marched into the match on an alarmingly lengthy string of playoff minutes without finding net. It didn’t just level the score on aggregate, it vented the pressure from a team with an ugly history of being shut out in elimination matches at Rio Tinto.
Besides that, Real Salt Lake had won 10 of 12 matches this year when leading at the half.
The second half chances went almost exclusively to RSL, with Saborio banging one header off the cross bar and later hitting the post with a quick-release shot from just beyond the penalty area. Jaime Penedo had much more work in L.A. goal than his RSL counterpart Nick Rimando.
The series could have turned when a long, late free kick from Javier Morales whipped in quickly over everyone and bounded past Penedo into goal. RSL center back Nat Borchers had begun his run in an offside position but never really got close to the ball. Still, he was adjudged offside … or perhaps there was a foul. Either way, referee Baldomero Toledo immediately waved off the goal, controversially so.
The rain and a hard field (so says Bruce Arena, anyway) kept either team from gaining a steady rhythm of possession. Both teams seemed slightly nervous about it all, and the result was a cautious second half without much happening over long stretches.
Robbie Rogers, not doing too much but generating what little offense the visitors could muster, cut inside to force a classy double save from Nick Rimando. At the other end, Robbie Findley caused some trouble here and there, as when he wriggled from along the left and forced Penedo to save at the near post.
The 1-0 score held, so a 30-minute overtime decided the series.
Schuler, so good in defense over the two legs, got on the end of Morales’ free kick at the far post in the 102nd minute (12 minutes into the first extra period) to send his team through.