SANDY — Real Salt Lake’s first game with Freddy Juarez as the official interim head coach through the end of the 2019 season was a lot like its previous four — which also saw Juarez serving as interim manager in replace of Mike Petke, whose contract was terminated Sunday night.
The train just keeps on rolling.
Sam Johnson, Albert Rusnak and Corey Baird each scored a goal to help Real Salt Lake thump Pacific Northwest rivals Seattle Sounders FC, 3-0 for the Salt Lake side’s sixth-straight match without a loss Wednesday night at Rio Tinto Stadium.
With the win, RSL leapfrogged Seattle to break into the top-four in the Western Conference standings — a venerated spot that would give the club home-field advantage in the first round if the playoffs started tomorrow.
“Once you start getting those results, it’s easy to believe in,” RSL defender Nedum Onuoha said. “Once you step onto the field, those players know they can keep a clean sheet.
“I felt a bit of pressure today with the way they’ve been playing, and me coming back into the side. But the way they’ve been playing, it was a perfect game to come back into.”
RSL (12-9-4, 40 points) took nearly 70% of possession through the opening 20 minutes, and the credit paid off with the opening goal. But this time, it came on the counter.
That was when Johnson ran on to the end of a field-flipping ball from Aaron Herrera straight up the park. The Liberian forward danced around the edge of the penalty area and rifled a shot that deflected off a Sounders defender and into the back of the net for the go-ahead goal, 1-0 in the 25th minute.
It was Johnson’s first goal since July 3, the day he went out with a quad injury following a 1-0 win over Columbus. The 5-foot-10 center forward made his return to the first team a week ago, playing 26 minutes off the bench in RSL’s 3-1 win over Sporting Kansas City.
“Let me give applause to the team, and to Aaron; it was a very good assist from him,” Johnson said. “He’s a player who whenever we are on the training ground, that’s exactly what he does. Every time I go out for a ball, he always looks ahead to see people who like to run out of the back. That’s why I try to make a move.”
Herrera joked that there were two other open players on the same counter-attacking move, so Johnson had to score — or someone would hear about it.
Fortunately for him, the striker knew exactly what to do in netting his ninth goal of the season.
“When Sam’s on the field, he’s going to give us that danger in behind,” Herrera said. “It should always be our first look.”
RSL out-shot the visitors 9-3 in the first half, nearly doubled that mark after the break, and held Seattle without a shot on goal.
For as much as Wednesday’s win was about the high-octane offense, it was also a celebration of defense. From Justen Glad to Nedum Onuoha to Marcelo Silva and midfielders Kyle Beckerman and Everton Luiz, RSL’s defense has been on lock down.
Wednesday was just a further example of that same mentality.
“Having scored three goals at home against a very good opponent in Seattle is a true testament to what we’ve done over the last three weeks,” Marshall said. “I thought we did a fantastic job tonight. We scored three goals, we got a shutout.
“It’s a very good thing from the group.”
Rusnak doubled the advantage just after the 70-minute mark. After Baird raced down the left sideline, the Slovakian international took a pass from Damir Kreilach and ripped a goal from 18-yards out that struck the far post for the 2-0 advantage.
Rusnak came off the pitch to a huge ovation just five minutes later. If there was ever a parting shot, the announced crowd of 17,825 fans experienced it at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Baird added the nightcap, hitting on the counter after a long pass from Kreilach in the 88th minute for Salt Lake’s third goal.
“Tonight was a good game for us, to get those goals, to help us conserve energy for (Saturday against LAFC),” Herrera said. “We’ve got two days rest, and we’re going to go into the game to win.”