This was indeed a long-awaited battle for LAFC and Real Salt Lake and fittingly it almost ended in a draw. But the final word came from Walker Zimmerman in stoppage time giving LAFC a 2-1 win. In the week leading up to it, the storyline appeared one-sided, with Latif Blessing leading the headlines proclaiming it as a rematch of last year’s fated knockout round. But if you scratched under the surface, there had always been a team from Utah trying to prove a point. They beat LAFC fair and square last year, and they could put up a fight again to show not only did they deserve to toss the new team on the block out of the playoffs, but they came here tonight to play. They almost took the point and ran.
Halfway through the first half, fouls and yellow cards aplenty, the tone was set. In the 35th minute, an error by Latif Blessing on Sebastián Saucedo in the box gave RSL their opening. Damir Kreilach, who scored twice in LAFC’s final match of 2018, took the penalty and nailed it through Tyler Miller’s grasp, continuing his reputation as a thorn in LAFC’s side. Rather than dampening the hosts’ spirits, it seemed to charge them into overdrive. Within minutes, Diego Rossi snuck the equalizer past Nick Rimando. By halftime, there was no denying things were heated.
Two weeks ago, the question of complacency was posed to Christian Ramirez (who’s on International Duty this week with the USMNT).
“I think we’re just all bought in. We’re growing from what we had last year. We are continuing to believe in the style of soccer that Bob [Bradley]wants us to play and that we’re capable of playing. It’s about building off of that intensity and not letting games get away from us.”
Whether Ramirez watched tonight or not, no one could argue that the vestiges of last season (i.e. – “letting the games get away from us”) reared their ugly heads tonight. While LAFC dominated (nearly doubled) possession from the start, their shots on goal were mainly blocked by the seasoned Nick Rimando who intends to retire at the end of the season awash with as much respect as he can retain. The look of astonishment on Bob Bradley’s face with only 20 minutes remaining was palpable. RSL kept putting the numbers back and LAFC was unable to force their way through Rimando and his army of defenders. They needed that point on the road. They needed a draw, which if you go by Latif Blessing’s 5-1 prediction, would have roughly translated into vindication. RSL once again played with heart and where they lack in finesse and style, they made up for it when they come to LAFC’s home. But Walker Zimmerman, with an assist from Niko Hämäläinen, who made his LAFC debut tonight, put a stunner over Rimando’s head. For all his efforts, and there were so many, Nick Rimando could not stop LAFC’s redemption tonight. LA have little to truly worry about in the long run. The return of Kaye and Ramirez beckon more wins in the near future.