SANDY — Real Salt Lake had an opportunity to make a statement across Major League Soccer when it welcomed league-leading Los Angeles FC to Rio Tinto Stadium.
And for about 15 minutes, the opportunity was golden.
But LAFC proved why it’s flirting with MLS’s "all-time best" label, even with less than 11 players on the pitch.
Carlos Vela converted a penalty kick just after the hour-mark, and 10-man Los Angeles FC went on to beat 10-man Real Salt Lake, 2-0 Saturday night at Rio Tinto Stadium.
With the goal, Vela set a new MLS single-season record with 39 combined goals and assists for LAFC (18-3-4, 58 points). And with the win, LAFC became the first team to mathematically qualify for the postseason.
The loss to the top team in Major League Soccer snapped a three-match winning streak by Real Salt Lake (12-10-4, 40 points) on the back-end of a run that included four matches in 13 days, including a 3-0 win over Seattle just three days prior.
Adama Diomande added a goal in the final 10 minutes, taking a pass from Lee Nguyen in the penalty area and doubling the advantage for the visitors in a match that finished with nine field players on each side.
“When you’re playing the top teams, opportunities don’t come easy,” RSL forward Corey Baird said.
LAFC dominated the opening stages of the game, out-shooting the hosts 9-4 in the first half with an 8-1 advantage in the first 30 minutes.
But everything changed three minutes after the break.
That’s when Walker Zimmerman, the LAFC defender already sitting on a yellow card, stuck out his arm to try to halt RSL’s Everton Luiz on a counterattack. The Brazilian midfielder went to the ground, and Toledo showed Zimmerman a yellow card for unsporting behavior. Add to it the early card Zimmerman received for “time wasting” in the 17th minute, and LAFC were forced to play down a man for more than 40 minutes of regulation.
But RSL tried to push for a goal, a go-ahead moment that would’ve sent the stadium into a frenzy.
Maybe it pushed too much, RSL captain Kyle Beckerman admitted.
“We went up a man, and maybe we were pushing a little too hard to get that goal right away. Maybe we could’ve kept a bit more possession and made them run,” Beckerman said. “On the PK, we lost the ball when we had options. Then it went the other way, and we gave up the PK. That’s on a decision to play a better ball.”
The next gamechanger arrived just 15 minutes later. Aaron Herrera drew a red card — this time it stuck; the former being overturned by video review as Baldomero's first-half red card for what he thought was a handball in the penalty box. In the second half, Herrera fouled LA star Carlos Vela in the box, and the Mexican international then stepped up to the spot and promptly slid one past Rimando to give LAFC a 1-0 advantage in the 65th minute of the 10-on-10 affair.
“Once you get Vela in a one-on-one against you, that’s a guy who the Germans couldn’t stop in the World Cup,” RSL interim head coach Freddy Juarez said of the moments leading up to the penalty. “It’s easy to say here what to do, but it’s hard in the heat of the moment. Aaron has been great for us all year, and he was just dealing with the best in MLS.”
Real Salt Lake had chances to take the game by its throat — and more than just the 10-plus minutes the club played up a man.
Jefferson Savarino nearly bagged a goal in the final minute of the first half, but his volley from the side of the net was saved by LA goalkeeper Tyler Miller.
Same with Corey Baird, who saw a shot go just wide of goal. But the club was undone as it failed to take advantage of a 15-minute spell when it may have had any other team on the ropes.
Any other team besides LAFC, that is.
“You go up a man against a very, very good opponent — and that’s where my management wasn’t the greatest,” Juarez said. “You don’t have to get a goal too quick in the game. But you can’t get reckless and let your opponent get back in the match.”
Unlike the previous three games, it wasn’t Salt Lake’s night.
“We felt like it was a good opportunity for us. We felt good going into the game,” Beckerman said. “It just wasn’t meant to be. We’ll get back to work, and we’ll do better next week.”
Real Salt Lake stays home to host Rocky Mountain rival Colorado next Saturday, Aug. 24. Kickoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. MDT on KMYU and KSL.com.