SANDY — With three of its top players absent for the next six weeks because of World Cup duty, Real Salt Lake faces a daunting task to keep its unbeaten streak alive.
The first test came Saturday night at Rio Tinto Stadium, where RSL passed with flying colors, taking a 2-1 victory over Colorado in front of a sellout crowd.
RSL dominated the action for most of the night, jumping out to a 2-0 lead before giving up a late goal and keeping the fans on the edge of their seats until the final whistle.
“It shows the team really is the star,’’ said RSL coach Jeff Cassar. “You miss a piece and you plug it in with another piece and we keep moving forward.’’
With the victory, RSL improved to 6-0-5 on the season and remains the only unbeaten team in Major League Soccer. The Rapids fell to 4-4-3 with the loss.
RSL was playing its first game without captain Kyle Beckerman and goalkeeper Nick Rimando, who are with the United States national team, as well as forward Alvaro Saborio, who is with the Costa Rica national team.
“Obviously missing Nick, Kyle and Sabo is huge, but with the character of these guys in the locker room, everyone is stepping up to do more,’’ said Cassar. “It was fantastic tonight.’’
Midfielder Ned Grabavoy called it RSL’s “best game of the year,’’ the way the club moved the ball in the opening half and then held off a furious late rally by the Rapids.
“Whenever everyone understands their role and what their job is, you see great things,’’ Grabavoy said. “Tonight I saw 11 players completely understand their role of what was asked of them and you had three guys, who haven’t played much, step into tonight and completely understand their role.’’
Real’s three World Cup absentees were replaced by goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, midfielder Cole Grossman and forward Devon Sandoval. Cassar had praise for each of them.
Of Attinella, he said, “I thought he was fantastic. He came up with several big saves, kept us in the game. You could see the confidence of his back line in him.’’
As for the other two, Cassar said, “Cole Grossman had a real mature performance, really sat and held down the fort there. He didn’t get caught out of position too much. Devon, his work rate was off the charts tonight, his ability to hold up the ball and bring our midfield into the attack was fantastic.’’
RSL got on the board in the 24th minute when Joao Plata found the net from 12 yards out, firing in a left-footed shot from the left side into the right corner past Colorado goalkeeper Clint Irwin.
The goal was set up by Javier Morales and Sandoval, whose passes found Plata open on the left side. For the 5-foot-2 forward from Ecuador, it was his sixth goal in eight games this year, tying him with Saborio for the team lead in goals.
Colorado had six shots in the first half, but its only shot on goal came in the final minute when Dillon Serna’s shot was easily handled by Attinella.
RSL made it 2-0 in the 51st minute on a penalty kick by Javier Morales after Sandoval was taken down in the box by Irwin, who protested mightily about the call, which appeared to be minimal contact.
Of course, RSL, which has had its share of late-game collapses this year that resulted in draws, couldn’t make it easy on themselves in the final minutes.
In the 83rd minute, the Rapids got on the board when Serna put a perfect ball from the right side off a free kick to Drew Moor, who headed the ball into the left corner past a sprawling Attinella. But RSL held on over the final 12 minutes, including five minutes of stoppage time.
“I thought our guys did a great job of bending but not breaking,’’ said Cassar.
RSL plays at home again Saturday against FC Dallas before going on the road for consecutive games against Seattle and Columbus
END LINES: With the win, RSL is now 10-10-9 all time against Colorado. ... While RSL had three players missing for World Cup duty, Colorado was missing no players. ... The game was part of the annual Rocky Mountain Cup. ... RSL has won six of the previous nine Rocky Mountain Cups. The home team has not lost a game in the series since 2007. ... The cup is awarded to the winner of the regular-season series. If the two teams split, the previous winner retains the cup. ... RSL and Colorado will meet Aug. 2 at Colorado and play again in Salt Lake on Sept. 19. ... Saturday night’s attendance was 20,489, marking the third sellout in five home games this year. ... With Beckerman gone, Morales wore the captain’s armband for the game.