SANDY— Battling strong winds and threatening rain, Real Salt Lake defeated the New York Red Bulls 2-0 in front of a home crowd almost 17,000 strong on Saturday night.
The match was the home opener for RSL, and the festivities were in full swing. People waved flags and scarves inside and outside of Rio Tinto Stadium. Constant singing, drum playing and chanting came from everywhere, though especially from the supporters groups in the south stands. Coach Jason Kreis praised the fans for their dedication to the team.
“Hats off to the fans tonight for getting there early,” Kreis said. “It was a special night for sure and that’s what I told the players before the game: what a great [and] passionate crowd we had there tonight. I wanted to give [the fans] what they deserved.”
In the first half, RSL maintained almost exclusive possession, being patient but persistent. Neither team was afraid to get physical, and within the first 22 minutes of the game two yellow cards were shown. The referees let play continue even on some hard challenges, which both elated and disappointed fans, depending on whom the calls favored.
The first yellow came in the 14th minute as New York’s Dane Richards took down RSL midfielder Ned Grabavoy. Booing persisted until the referee booked Richards, at which point the crowd cheered in support.
In the 30th minute, New York captain Thierry Henry took the ball almost the entire length of the field only to have it knocked out at the endline on a tackle by Real’s Fabian Espindola.
It was Espindola who put Real on the board with a breakaway run in the 39th minute. Completely alone on New York’s left side just past midfield, Paulo Junior passed him the ball over New York’s defenders which left Espindola with only the keeper to beat.
The crowd erupted in cheers and the RSL anthem sounded over the loudspeakers. Supporters in the south stands threw streamers and confetti, much of which ended up on the field. Like Kreis, defender Tony Beltran was grateful for the energy of the home crowd.
“You can look at it from that aspect, big market versus small market, but it’s hard for me to accept that because you look at the atmosphere here tonight and you question, ‘Are we really a small market team?'” Beltran said. “We’re here to stay in this city and the fans are just fantastic. They were chanting the anthem tonight, and it was something very special.”
RSL keeper Nick Rimando got his first test in the 43rd minute as Henry’s kick went straight to Rimando who handled the ball easily.
In the 58th minute, Luis Gil scored a goal following an Espindola shot Meara blocked. Gil put the ball into the net between two defenders and over Meara who was still on the ground from deflecting Espindola’s attempt.
Gil considers Espindola a dangerous player, one who draws the defense toward him, which makes it easier for himself and others to do clean up.
“If you follow the play and make that run then you know it’s an easy goal and an easy tap in,” Gil said. “[Espindola] will take a strike and he’ll either make it or get a rebound of off it and that’s for us to pick up the slack right there.”
In the second half, the Red Bulls maintained possession with greater ease and became more aggressive as they went down 2-0. They almost scored in the 64th minute after a deflected corner and weak shot up the middle. The ball came to Henry who popped it in the air and executed an impressive bicycle kick. As he did so, the crowd seemed to audibly gasp. Luckily for the fans, the ball bent just right of the backpost and out of Rimando’s reach.
Though the Red Bulls maintained nearly 60 percent possession in the second half, they failed. Gil thought the Red Bulls “kind of stepped back a bit,” which allowed RSL to control the game from the start. Kreis acknowledged his team played well but thought it also fell a little flat as the game wore on.
“I do think it needs to be said that we need to continue to improve because tonight was certainly nowhere near perfect,” Kreis said. “The effort was great, but in the second half I really felt we should have been scored on.”
Real is now 2-0-0 on the season, having defeated the L.A. Galaxy, defending MLS Champions, 3-1 in RSL’s regular season opener. Real Salt Lake next plays home versus Chivas USA on March 24.