With just seconds to play, a team was born on the 4th of July. Down one goal Real Salt Lake threw every player, including its goalie into Philadelphia’s penalty box awaiting a free kick, with one main objective: Score.
When a Union defender inexplicably raised his hand as the ball sailed into the top of that penalty box, RSL had the one chance it needed — at the game’s death.
96 minutes of sheer hell had been played — and Real Salt Lake had been playing a man down since early into the second half.
Now RSL midfielder Javier Morales was called upon to take the penalty kick awarded when RSL looked like it wouldn’t get another chance.
It was time for extra strength Excedrin, but the team captain with his short, spiked jet black hair drenched in sweat stepped up to the spot resolute as ever to take the kick.
As Morales stood there at the top of the 18 prepared to take the kick you could sense nothing would keep the ball from missing its target; that it would will its way in, no matter what. RSL hadn’t lost since mid-May in Montreal — and even that loss felt like a win, in some manner.
But that’s why they play the game. With the inside of his right foot Morales pushed the ball to the right post but for some odd reason the curve on the shot was so severe it pinged off the post. Luckily for him and the team the size 5 curled inside that God-forsaken post enough to carom back into side netting to give RSL a 2-2 tie.
“Yeah, it adds a little bit more drama to the game. It was nothing. I tried to look for one post and it was a little too close,” said Morales.
Had it hit the outside of the post it probably wouldn’t have went in based on the amount of spin Morales had placed on the ball. So much for luck, huh?
Their unbeaten streak at home preserved, TV cameras panned to the RSL sideline, where Jason Kreis held his head in his hands, looking like he had survived a war of wills — and trust in his younger players with so many starters on international duty.
“We have to be very comfortable to send out a group like that, that has that much fight and that much spirit to come back in this game. It says a lot about them; it says a lot about their character. Tonight wasn’t the best night for some guys, soccer-wise, particularly in the first half. What they did give was everything they could, and that’s really appreciated,” said Kreis.
In a game that was reminiscent of Saturday’s 1-0 bloodbath/historic win in Toronto the friendly confines of home proved no more welcoming than BMO Field. In fact, the Union gave RSL all it could handle in the physicality department.
Like most teams who battle RSL, Philadelphia got 10 players behind the ball at all times. The difference between the Union and Toronto FC is that Philly can play very technical, possession style soccer when needed.
And once they got the ball, they made RSL pay dearly. Counterattacks against RSL typically don’t work because the claret and cobalt midfielders recover quickly, providing much needed support to a defense under siege.
Tonight, however, center back Carlos Salcedo made a critical mental error, not providing goal side assistance on a Conor Casey cross blasted inside the six yard box.
Without Salcedo where he should have been, Union midfielder Sebastian LeToux was left all alone to slot the ball into an empty net for a 1-0 lead 12 minutes in.
The first half produced more of the same action. RSL would throw numbers into the attack and swing the ball out to the flanks, trying to string together a goal. If the Union won the ball they would quickly counterattack, a strategy that seemed to work for most of the match.
With what some would consider foul play, it seemed like every time RSL would touch the ball a player was being fouled. In minute 59 the dirty tactics the Union used were obviously grating on RSL. Not only were they unable to score, they couldn’t sustain any possession without being de-cleated.
On a 50-50 ball, defender Lovel Palmer sought to win the ball back from Union midfielder Michael Farfan — but went in on the tackle a little harder than expected, according to referee Ismail Elfath.
“From our vantage point, the tackle was considered serious foul play that endangered the safety of the opponent by way of contact of the cleats, exposed cleats, with the shin area of the opponent that ended up being injured.”
Elfath issued a red card to Palmer, and the claret and cobalt were now reduced to 10 men.
Even when RSL equalized in the 75th minute from a Javier Morales corner kick that substitute Luis Gil — fresh off his successful U.S.U-23 World Cup stint — had redirected with a flick header that whirled into the net to tie the game at 1-1, the Union stuck to its game plan.
Less than one minute later, after winning back possession on an errant RSL pass into the midfield the Union quickly played a diagonal pass into a Union midfielder Antoine Hoppenot, who took two touches forward and cut the ball back to his left foot, wrong-footing his defender and also opening space for Casey at the top of the box.
Casey took a touch to his right and coolly glided a ball into left netting past goalkeeper Josh Saunders for a 2-1 advantage.
To RSL’s credit, however, they didn’t fold up shop. The next 15 minutes were filled with good interplay between the midfielders and forwards and plenty of attacking chances.
You could sense that the last of the scoring wasn’t over — despite multiple defensive breakdowns, including one hairy moment two minutes into stoppage time that left Casey alone, dribbling 30 yards upfield with only Saunders to beat for a 3-1 lead.
Luckily for RSL, Saunders came up huge. He came off of his line with as large a frame as possible — arms extended, as goalies are taught to do — parrying Casey’s point blank blast away.
“That right there was the game. I could sort of feel that, as it was brought down. You rely on the goalkeeper so much to make saves at the right time, and he made the absolute biggest save at the absolute best time,” said Kreis.
Whatever the reason was, RSL got the point it needed in the dying moments, remaining atop the Western Conference all alone. And, it’s a team with a bit of a break with its toughest games of the season coming up.