Real Salt Lake moved clear at the top of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference Wednesday with a bedraggled 1-0 win over Montreal Impact at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Paulo Araujo Jr.’s 13th-minute penalty kick sent the hosts three points ahead of San Jose Earthquakes and Colorado Rapids having played one more game. Montreal controlled the ball for long periods without generating the spark required in the attacking third to get their first MLS win.
Real Head Coach Jason Kreis made five changes from the team that snatched a 3-2 win at Portland Timbers last Saturday. Japanese right-back Terukazu Tanaka made his debut with Tony Beltran switching to the left side. Chris Schuler partnered Jamison Olave in central defense, Jonny Steele made his first MLS start, and Will Johnson and Fabian Espindola came into the starting line-up. Nat Borchers, Chris Wingert, Javier Morales, Ned Grabavoy and Alvaro Saborio all dropped to the bench.
Montreal were architects of their own downfall at New York Red Bulls last Saturday, gift-wrapping four goals in a 5-2 loss. Head Coach Jesse Marsch also made five personnel changes and switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation from his regular 4-4-2.
Shavar Thomas and Jeb Brovsky replaced Tyson Wahl and Zarek Valentin in the back four. Former RSL midfielder Collen Warner got his first start since being picked up in this season’s expansion draft. Sanna Nyassi and Bernardo Corradi dropped to the bench, with Lamar Neagle coming in to provide width on the left and Salt Lake native Justin Braun posted up front.
Montreal’s Matteo Ferrari spurned the first chance of the game on seven minutes when he ducked into Felipe’s inswinging corner at the back post rather than making a firm connection. The ball rebounded harmlessly wide of Nick Rimando’s goal.
The 32-year-old Italian didn’t do much better in his own half four minutes later. The former Roma and Genoa defender was dragged wide by Espindola and left 10 yards behind the play as the Argentine forward flicked Rimando’s goal kick on to Paulo Jr. and sprinted for a return pass. Espindola cut inside Josh Gardner and Brovsky before firing his shot to Donovan Ricketts’ right side. The goalkeeper, already diving to his right, managed to kick the ball away.
The danger hadn’t passed. Real forced a corner which Steele retrieved with another cross into Montreal’s 6-yard box. Johnson found room to steer a header against the outstretched arm of Braun and referee Ricardo Salazar awarded a penalty kick. Paulo Jr. drilled his shot low into Ricketts’ left corner.
The Impact Fights Back
Morales and Grabavoy are key components of Real’s trademark patient, possession-based approach. The midfield duo’s absence was causing too many cheap turnovers from Kreis’ team, allowing Montreal to press further up the field and gain confidence as the first half wore on. Brovsky released Justin Mapp down the right on 24 minutes and the winger’s cross was just too high for captain Davy Arnaud.
The visitors could have been awarded a penalty three minutes later. Olave shut the door on Arnaud as the former Sporting Kansas City midfielder tried to beat the defender on the left side of the box. The Colombian colossus appeared to bundle Arnaud to the ground with a two-handed push rather than a shoulder.
Schuler volleyed Beckerman’s deep free-kick off the top of the crossbar on 29 minutes during a rare Real attack as Montreal kept getting into good crossing positions. Gardner’s inswinging corner on 41 minutes found Arnaud unmarked at the back post. His downward header was blocked by a bundle of bodies. Another good spell of Impact pressure two minutes later ended with Neagle being unable to head Brovsky’s cross on target.
Similar Pattern In Second Half
Paulo Jr. almost doubled Real’s advantage two minutes after the interval. The Brazilian forward raced on to Luis Gil’s pass behind Montreal’s defense before rounding Ricketts and firing toward the unguarded net. Thomas stayed alert to clear from his goal line.
Espindola showed his great and grating sides on 54 minutes when he shrugged off Neagle near the byline on the left of the penalty area and side-stepped Brovsky. Real’s all-time second-highest goalscorer hooked a right-foot shot horribly wide of the side netting from a tight angle when he had three teammates to pick out in the middle.
Marsch switched his two wingers at half-time and Mapp was beginning to get some joy against Tanaka down Montreal’s left side. A straight pass down the line from Gardner on 56 minutes found Mapp streaking into space beyond Salt Lake’s defense. The former Philadelphia Union man tried to pick out an unmarked Braun with his cross. Rimando pounced to intercept what would have been a certain equalizer.
Kreis’ Brings Out The Big Guns
Marsch replaced the ineffective Neagle with Nyassi on 63 minutes and moved Mapp into the hole behind Braun. Kreis responded to his team’s failings by introducing Morales and Grabavoy for Gil and Steele.
Ricketts kept Montreal alive with the save of the game on 67 minutes. Espindola met Grabavoy’s cross with a powerful downward header that was hurtling toward the bottom corner until the Jamaican stopper dived full stretch to turn it around his post.
Real were beginning to take the sting out of the game by finally holding onto the ball for longer stretches. Marsch again shuffled his pack by bringing on Corradi for Braun and moving Nyassi behind the Italian striker with Mapp moving back to the right. Rookie Andrew Wenger replaced full-back Brovsky on 83 minutes as Montreal moved to a 3-4-3 for the closing minutes.
Mapp fired a tame shot into Rimando’s side net in the first minute of injury time after cutting inside onto his favored left foot. Still Montreal kept fighting and a goalmouth scramble in the dying seconds led to one final corner for Real to defend. Olave blocked Gardner’s shot on his 6-yard line before scooping the ball to safety.
“We gave the ball away a lot,” Kreis told reporters after the game. “We could have and should have been punished for that.”
The fact that they weren’t reflects on Montreal’s struggles to create chances. The Impact enjoyed long spells of possession and swung 17 crosses into Real’s penalty box from open play, but managed just two shots on target.
Marsch said his team’s performance was “another step in the right direction” and that Montreal were getting “better and better every game.” That’s true, but the pressure is building on the Impact to secure their first win and break their losing habit.
Montreal’s fans couldn’t wish for a better time for that to happen than this Saturday when bitter rivals Toronto F.C., the only team left without a point, visit the Olympic Stadium.