Real Salt Lake ventured to Dick's Sporting Goods Park to face the Colorado Rapids in the first leg of the teams' Rocky Mountain Cup rivalry on Saturday afternoon, and while many of the quality chances fell to the home side, RSL snuck out with all three points on a pair of late goals.
No Howard? No problem, at first
The Rapids entered Saturday's match without their emotional leader and United States Men's National Team mainstay Tim Howard, who was handed a three-game suspension late on Friday night for inappropriate interactions with fans following his team's listless 3-1 loss to Sporting Kansas City on April 9. With Howard out, Zac MacMath stepped into goal for the Rapids.
But Colorado generally succeeded in keeping the pressure off MacMath throughout the match, and MacMath, who started in goal for the Rapids prior to Howard's arrival last year, was only relied upon to retain possession and distribute from the back, as the Rapids were content to defend and counter throughout the match.
And in the 5th minute, the Rapids almost found an opener. Colorado midfielder Michael Azira found himself under pressure with the ball at his feet in the Rapids' defensive third. Azira successfully sidestepped an attempted tackle from RSL's Luke Mulholland, then picked up his head and played a 40-yard ball to the feet of attacker Kevin Doyle. Doyle held off RSL center back Chris Schuler and streaked into the RSL penalty area, but his shot was successfully parried by goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
Despite the early missed chance, the Rapids broke through in the 29th minute. Midfielder Bismark Boateng sent a through ball behind the RSL back-four and found a sprinting Marlon Hairston down the left flank. Hairston outraced RSL right back Danilo Acosta to the ball and pinged a hopeful cross to the top of the six-yard box. The cross fell to Doyle, who had successfully split the RSL central defense, and the Irishman's header vaulted Colorado to a first half lead.
Last-minute magic for RSL
The Rapids appeared to have the win locked up late in the match. RSL's attack lacked inspiration and creativity on the night, and as the minutes ticked away, it appeared unlikely that RSL would manage an equalizer. But equalize RSL did in the 85th minute. Second half RSL substitute Ricardo Velazco drew a yellow card foul from Mekeil Williams on the right wing. The ensuing free kick by Albert Rusnak resulted in a loose ball in the penalty area before veteran defender Chris Wingert connected on a full volley in the center of the box. The shot was blocked by the hand of defender Jared Watts, resulting in a penalty kick for the visitors and a red card to Watts for denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity. RSL's Yura Movsisyan struck the ensuing spot kick past MacMath to level the score line.
But RSL wasn't done. With a man advantage, RSL continued to press in the game's final minutes and found a winner only three minutes later. Former RSL Academy standout and Liverpool loanee Brooks Lennon slotted a 30-yard blast past MacMath in the 88th minute. Lennon successfully evaded three Rapids defenders on the play, dribbling from the left wing to the center of the pitch, and his shot caught MacMath flatfooted, as the goalkeeper was unable to react in time to get a hand out to deflect the strike.
The win puts RSL in a commanding position to win the 2017 edition of the Rocky Mountain Cup--the annual rivalry between RSL and the Rapids--and the club now has now logged victories in consecutive matches after a winless five-game start. The win also moves the Salt Lake team into sixth in the Western Conference, while Colorado remains in the conference's bottom spot.
Real Salt Lake returns home next Saturday for an evening matchup against expansion side Atlanta United. Colorado Rapids will face Major League Soccer's other 2017 newcomer, Minnesota United, in Minneapolis.