Real Salt Lake entered Saturday's match against FC Dallas undefeated at 6-0-5 with 23 points, two behind Seattle for second place in the Western Conference. A win Saturday held a lot of promise. It would push RSL past Seattle, which tied Vancouver earlier in the night, and would put the Claret and Cobalt in a three-way tie for most games to start a season unbeaten, with the L.A. Galaxy (who did it twice, in 1996 and 2010) and the Kansas City Wizards (2000).
The first half was evenly matched with both teams getting four shots off. Dallas came in Saturday after a midweek tilt with Los Angeles, but looked stronger than RSL might have expected.
It didn't take long during the second half for the exhaustion to show up for Dallas, and it was content to fill the backfield and play for its third tie, which it finally earned after three official minutes of stoppage time and another five of Dallas extra-time injuries and substitutions.
Jeff Attinella's fingertips went 1-on-1 with Fabian Castillo in the 38th minute, as the speedy midfielder found his way through Beltran and Schuler for his first shot of the night. Attinella's fingers won the first tilt. His 53rd minute save on Tesho Akindele showed tremendous quickness, and was his best of the night. Man of the Match.
FC Dallas may have the speediest attack in Major League Soccer. With Tony Beltran matching up against Fabian Castillo and Chris Wingert matching up with Je-Vaughn Watson in the Oscar Pareja 4-2-3-1 formation, both will sit back defensively more than usual, and with speedster Tesho Akindele floating with Blas Perez along the defensive line, Chris Schuler and Nat Borchers had their work cut out for them.
Tony Beltran started the game a little uneasy, clearly having watched film of Fabian Castillo smoking right backs throughout the league with his speed and quickness. He laid back a little too much, making the right side of RSL's attack less balanced than usual. By the 25th minute he was back on the attack. His finest play of the game came on defense when in the 66th minute he pinned his ears back to interfere with Tesho Akindele's point-blank shot on goal.
Chris Schuler is 6-foot-4, nearly 200 pounds, and has to have size 13 boots, or bigger. At that size, you expect him to be on the field because he's a bruiser. And he is, but you wouldn't expect to see the touch, the quickness and the softness he displays on the field. And he's just rarely out of position. Saturday, it was all on display as RSL broke down Dallas' crowded attack with relative ease, thanks in large part to great stops and even better passing from Schuler.
Nat Borchers and Dallas' Blas Perez chirped at each other all night long. Borchers bleeds cobalt and sees claret, and anyone who threatens his team is his enemy, Perez included. He wasn't too friendly with Tesho Akindele either. But when your center back can back the mouth up with the physical brand of soccer Borchers plays, somebody's smiling, even if it's not Borchers.
Chris Wingert went down, dazed and confused, in the 27th minute on a hard challenge at midfield with what appeared to be a Dallas elbow to the left eye. But Wingert has played through worse. He bounced back relatively quickly and even seemed to draw strength from it, closing out the game with a gritty performance.
Luke Mullholland started once again, leaving Luis Gil on the bench for the third week in a row since Gil has returned to full fitness. Cole Grossman got his second start of the season at the holding midfield position usually filled by Kyle Beckerman. Ned Grabavoy and Javier Morales filled their typical roles.
Luke Mullholland roamed the midfield much more than usual, often trading sides with Ned Grabavoy at will. It seemed to do the trick in breaking down Dallas' packed midfield, but created some flow problems for RSL early. By the final 30 minutes, Mullholland stayed to the right side of the field more often and the flow returned to help RSL pin a clearly gassed Dallas team into its half of the field.
Javier Morales played the top of the diamond deeper into Dallas' field than usual. He played off the forwards to push the ball wide to create space that he used to great effect, mounting attacks from the center that pulled Dallas' defense out of shape enough to give RSL some good opportunities at goal.
Cole Grossman was much better Saturday than his start last week against Colorado. He was more patient and his passing was significantly improved. One of Kyle Beckerman's best qualities is his ability to simplify his game, and Grossman seemed to channel that aspect of Beckerman Saturday night.
Ned Grabavoy was banged on a lot Saturday. If he were less stout or more willing to play mind-games, he could have gone to ground a number of times to draw the foul. But Grabavoy showed tremendous heart and class Saturday night as he played the part of the Energizer Bunny.
Luis Gil (Sub ’82 ) entered the game for the final 20 minutes in place of Luke Mullholland. Tough timing for Gil to develop any sort of rhythm. About the 87th minute, he finally produced a promising link-up or two in the Dallas end of the field.
Devon Sandoval filled in for Alvaro Saborio once again Saturday night, but last Saturday's performance and the connection he and Joao Plata seem to be developing during training has made the second-year forward an excellent fill-in for RSL's deadly post-up striker. Joao Plata started beside him and continues to be one of the deadliest strikers in Major League Soccer. Robbie Findley made the 18 for the first time this season after rehabbing an off-season knee surgery.
Devon Sandoval was very good in the air Saturday night, particularly in the midfield flicking on balls with head and feet in prototypical post-up striker fashion. He was particularly good at keeping balls in play for his midfielders to run onto.
Joao Plata is just plain exciting to watch. He spent much of the first half waiting for RSL to break down Dallas' crowded midfield, but in the 34th minute, he showed the speed and deftness that has all of MLS in an uproar by beating two defenders to the endline only to have his shot tackled away at the last minute. His second breakaway of the night had fans in the south stands all on their feet with a collective gasp as he pulled up after injuring his left hamstring, the same one that sent him to the bench earlier in the season.
Olmes Garcia ( Sub ’42) entered the game for the injured Plata. Garcia was solid but lacked the creativity and threatening quickness of Plata in the box. That said, his ability to turn the corner near the touchline may feel like one-trick soccer, but it was very effective as RSL showed more aggression in the second half against a flagging Dallas team.
Robbie Findley (Sub ’65) played his first game of the season in place of Devon Sandoval. He looked fit and speedy as ever, but as could be expected, his touch still lacked a little. That said, it was good for Real Salt Lake fans to see the erst-while World Cup forward on the field.
Chris Higbee is a former general manager of DeseretNews.com who continues to write about Real Salt Lake.