RSL center back Nedum Onuoha rises to occasion in 1st playoff taste

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LOS ANGELES — Nedum Onuoha has been in a “playoff” before, in four seasons with England second-division side Queens Park Rangers.

But “playoffs” have a different meaning — and a different feel — on the other side of the ocean.

So, welcome to the MLS Cup playoffs, Onuoha — where Real Salt Lake plays with house money.

Real Salt Lake’s second-time starting center back was “the star” Thursday night in the City of Angels, where RSL toppled Los Angeles FC 3-2 in the first-year MLS expansion club’s postseason debut.

“This is a new experience to me, too, as much as I am 1,000 years old now,” said Nedum, a 6-foot-2 native of Warri, Nigeria who is really 31 years old. “It is a new experience. I spoke to a lot of people, tried to find out about the tournament, and made sure that I relaxed going into it.

“At the end of the day, you want to play in these games. You don’t want to be suffocated by the pressure of the occasion; you want to make the most of it, and I feel like I did.”

> Victory Friday [](

— Real Salt Lake (@realsaltlake) November 2, 2018

At times, LAFC played like a team that had risen up to third place in the Western Conference in its inaugural season. It played like a team that boasted attacking stars like Carlos Vela, Diego Rossi, Christian Ramirez, Lee Nguyen and Adama Diomande. It played like a team coached by former U.S. men’s national team manager Bob Bradley.

But it also, at times, played like a team making its first-ever postseason debut.

LAFC, which went 16-9-9 in its expansion season that included two wins over RSL 5-1 and 2-0, out-shot the visitors 21-4 on the night, including 8-2 in shots on goal, according to Opta stats. The hosts had nine corner kicks to RSL’s one.

But Damir Kreilach scored two goals, and Onuoha and the RSL back line didn’t care. They just did what they had to do Thursday to get the win.

“When you’re in a game that you know is a must-win game or your season is over, then you know the best thing to do is to put your body on the line,” Onuoha said. “You know that if you get it wrong today, your season is done.

“I think it was just a lot commitment, and we had something to hold on to. When you looked around, you could see that everyone was doing it — not by yourself.”


(🎥 via: @MLS)

— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) November 2, 2018

That’s not to undersell the efforts of Kreilach, who scored his team-best 13th and 14th goals of the season Thursday night, or even Jefferson Savarino, who one-time deflected shot off Walker Zimmerman in the 69th minute proved to be the game winner.

But Kreilach allowed the visitors to play from ahead for all but about 4 minutes of official time, and that was enough for defense-first Real Salt Lake.

“The start of the game went as planned,” RSL captain Kyle Beckerman said. “We had a good shape, and then were able to catch them on the break — and a great goal by Damir. But I thought it was really good for that we went down a goal, didn’t panic, got it right back and then went on to get the winner.”

Onuoha wasn’t supposed to play much in 2018 for RSL. The club brought him in just before Major League Soccer’s roster-freeze deadline, expecting a veteran presence to guide the backline alongside Justen Glad and Marcelo Silva next season, with a chance to earning an option year for 2020, as well.

But his experience was just what Real Salt Lake — a team that was all-but out of the playoffs two weeks ago, needing a miracle comeback by the Houston Dynamo on the final day of the season just to clinch its spot — needed Thursday night at Banc of California Stadium.

“He was a star tonight,” RSL coach Mike Petke said of Onuoha, who often imitated his coach, who was also a hustling, busting defensive bulwark from New York. “At times it wasn’t pretty, but that’s what you’ve got to do to get a result.”

RSL’s win — even its defensive effort — wasn’t just because of Onuoha. Nick Rimando made six saves in another standout night, even while being pelted with ice cubes and a few beer cups from the raucous crowd in LAFC’s impenetrable supporters’ section.

Marcelo Silva was a fitting complement to Onuoha, another big center back willing to put it all on the line for his team’s playoff success. Brooks Lennon, the Swiss Army Knife, newly converted from winger to right back, was a dual-threat going forward, as was left back Aaron Herrera.

It was a “team defense” like RSL tends to get in its best moments, team captain Kyle Beckerman said.

But there’s no denying Onuoha’s play was special, even for this club.

“He’s got so much experience, and a game like this was nothing to him,” Beckerman said. “He stepped in and filled in perfectly. I think he was excited to get into the thick of things with MLS. He was fantastic tonight, and we’ve got to keep it moving.”

There’s no burgeoning center back controversy as Real Salt Lake prepares to host West-leading Sporting Kansas City in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals Sunday at 8 p.m. MT at Rio Tinto Stadium (FS1). Justen Glad will likely retain a spot he’s felt comfortable in all season — or at least “see a lot of minutes” this weekend, Petke said.

“Justen Glad has not lost his place on this team, and I want to make that very public here,” Petke stated matter-of-factly. “But we needed the experience tonight, and we needed somebody who would be breaking lines and creating tackles, calming the game down when we needed it be, and Nedum was huge for us tonight.

“That’s why we brought him in.”

Next up

Real Salt Lake hosts the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals against Sporting Kansas City. Kickoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. MT Sunday at Rio Tinto Stadium (FS1). Leg 2 will be played Nov. 11 in Kansas City, Kansas.

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