Real Salt Lake came into its U.S. Open match against the Atlanta Silverbacks on Tuesday with the specter of last year's loss to the Minnesota Stars looming in the background. This year was a different story, however.
Real Salt Lake scored early, conceded late and scored two goals in overtime to win 3-2 and advance to the next round of Open Cup play.
All time, Real Salt lake is 6-8 in U.S. Open Cup play. Tuesday's extra-time win was more evidence that competing against teams from the lower divisions of American soccer is as much a mental battle as it is a physical one.
"I think there was a little complacency," RSL coach Jason Kreis said. "That's a very good team. There are a lot of players in our country right now that can play. They're not all in MLS."
Tuesday's win over the Silverbacks came as a result of combined effort, structured play, and well-executed strategy over the full 120 minutes of soccer by each of the three position groups on the field, plus RSL goalkeeper Josh Saunders.
Here is a breakdown of how each position group fared as a whole, with Saunders' evaluation coming last.
Starters: Devon Sandoval, Robbie Findley
Substitutions: Joao Plata for Findley
Tactical shift: Lovel Palmer replaced Sandoval in overtime. Sandoval moved to midfield.
The speedy Findley and the stalwart Sandoval worked extraordinarily hard. Both of the starting strikers covered a lot of ground, executed numerous combination plays, and in the end, came through big time for the home side, particularly Sandoval.
The rookie from New Mexico covered an awful lot of ground, playing not just up top, but frequently dropping back to apply pressure to the midfield. He made several dangerous cuts into the 6-yard box, and one of those cuts finally paid off. His overtime goal gave RSL a lead it wouldn't surrender.
"It felt really good," he said. "I was really happy to score one here in overtime at home. Tonight I felt pretty good with my hold-up play and combining. I probably should have finished one earlier, but overall I'm satisfied."
Findley and Plata contribute in an extraordinarily important way: passing. Indeed, the hidden strength of both of these RSL speed demons is their ability to pass and find the open cutter in critical spaces and at critical times.
If there was one area the forwards lacked, it was the ability to seriously test Atlanta goalkeeper Joe Nasco when given the opportunity. This flaw manifested itself as a result of poor decision-making much more than technical ability.
Man of the match: Devon Sandoval
Starters: Javier Morales, Sebastian Velasquez, Kyle Beckerman, Yordany Alvarez
Substitution: Ned Grabavoy for Velasquez, Khari Stephenson for Alvarez
Tactical shift: Sandoval to right midfield, Grabavoy to right back
Real Salt Lake did something unique in the midfield Tuesday night; Beckerman played out on the side of the diamond formation, and the holding midfield position went to Alvarez. It was the first time Beckerman played on the wing since 2008.
The midfield sliced and diced Atlanta early in this match. Kyle Beckerman's third-minute goal was only one manifestation of RSL's midfield superiority. Through the rest of the first half, Atlanta barely sniffed the ball.
But after the reality of a 1-0 lead settled in, the diamond got complacent, giving away possession too cheaply and not executing crisp passing consistently, especially in the second half.
"We got in some bad habits," Kreis said. "Giving the ball away way too cheaply, and I think that caused a shift in momentum."
That said, those issues resolved themselves in the overtime period. Stephenson's substitution was key. The reserve's lethal strike was the nail in the coffin down the stretch and definitively put the game out of reach.
"Lovel crossed it; the defender tried to clear it; and it came straight to me," Stephenson said. "The guy was running; I opened up, took a touch to the right, got by him, hit it well, and it was a well-placed shot."
Starters: Chris Wingert, Kwame Watson-Siriboe, Lovel Palmer, Carlos Salcedo
Tactical shift: Palmer to forward, Ned Grabavoy to right back
The defense in this game did a good job of staying compact and forcing the Atlanta attack to the corners of the pitch … most of the time. For both Atlanta goals, a cheap giveaway in the box resulted in massive opportunity, and the Silverbacks converted.
The defense was rarely tested in this game in a manner other than the counter attack. Atlanta played several passes over the top of the back line, testing the speed and quickness of Watson-Siriboe and Salcedo, not to mention their ability to disrupt play by getting a head on the ball.
Perhaps the biggest dividend RSL is accruing is giving the 19-year-old Salcedo experience on the back line — an asset that will likely pay off many times in the coming years for both him and the club.
"I gotta keep improving on things," Salcedo said. "These are the types of games where a young player wants to play. I think I'm getting that experience that I need for the future."
That said, two late-game goals as a direct result of an inability to close out on attacking players is a black mark on this group's Tuesday night report card.
Starter: Josh Saunders
The RSL goalkeeper was rarely tested in the first half, but was forced into multiple impressive saves in the second half, particularly down the stretch.
Saunders, Nick Rimando's backup and a former L.A. Galaxy goalkeeper, is a quality 'keeper in his own right. His ability to anticipate play and stifle the attack manifested itself multiple times over the match, a credit to his mental toughness.
"Mentally, you try and stay in the game as much as possible," Saunders said. "At any moment in time, there could be a lapse and you've got to act. In the end we got the result that we wanted. It may not have been how everyone wanted to see it or how we wanted to see it, but we got the result."
Saunders did well calling his defenders off the ball when necessary, and though he surrendered two goals, both shots were extremely well-placed. He only realistically had a chance to save the first of the two, and in fact, was able to get a palm on it, deflecting it, but was not able to prevent it from entering the goal.