SANDY — Wednesday night was about looking back on the past, honoring it, celebrating it, and carving out a better future for Real Salt Lake in the 2019 campaign.
With the bulk of the 2009 MLS Cup champion squad in attendance and a special tribute to "El Maestro" Javier Morales at halftime, the standing room-only crowd obliged to make for a special evening at Rio Tinto Stadium.
But on the field?
Well, let’s just say that RSL has come a long way since vexing one-time rival Los Angeles Galaxy on penalty kicks during a cold night in Seattle 10 years ago.
And so, too, have the Galaxy, who honored their own legend — world superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic — with a win.
Ibrahimovic had a goal and an assist as the LA Galaxy walked away from Rio Tinto Stadium with a 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake in front of announced crowd of 20,838 fans.
Ibrahimovic set up Cristian Pavon in the 50th minute with the game’s opening goal, and the Argentine turned the tables about a half-hour later with an assist of his own to help the Swedish international finish the job and stun the standing room-only crowd in attendance.
Center back Nedum Onuoha pulled one back in the 89th minute for Real Salt Lake, which fell to 14-13-5 and watched the Galaxy (16-13-3, 51 points) stretch their lead on fourth place in the West to four points with the loss.
In a game defined by moments, Onuoha's goal — the first of his MLS career — was a good one.
But the Galaxy had too many of them, especially in the second half, and walked away with all three points.
"I think it was just a couple of moments," RSL midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. "We played well; the only thing we were missing was the goal to get the extra momentum. And then there were two moments when they used to score a goal that changed the game."
Real Salt Lake went on the attack, trying to strike out Ibrahimovic from the Galaxy’s attack early. The hosts nearly had a goal as well; Albert Rusnak’s corner kick just before the 40th minute found Sam Johnson before the Liberian’s redirect caromed off the post with such ferocity that it left the nets swaying behind LA goalkeeper David Bingham.
Real Salt Lake outshot the Galaxy 9-3 in the first half, but never recaptured quite the same momentum after halftime.
"We came out of the locker room thinking we had a good first half," RSL interim head coach Freddy Juarez said. “The talk in the locker room was that we could up the tempo even more — and in the first 10-15 minutes of the half, we didn’t do that.
"We started off too slow, and that can’t happen. Two silly goals."
Moments after the locker-room pep talk, the first goal of the night went the other way.
Just five minutes after an emotional halftime in which Real Salt Lake honored the legendary Morales by raising his name and number on to the west balcony at Rio Tinto Stadium, Ibrahimovic — a legend in his own right — nodded a pass to Pavon for the opening goal.
Pavon didn’t need much from the mega-superstar, and the 5-foot-7 Argentine finished his second goal of the season through traffic and inside the far post to give the Galaxy a 1-0 lead, despite being outshot 9-3 in the first half.
Pavon wasn’t with the Galaxy the last time they played RSL, but he made sure to leave his mark Wednesday night with the Galaxy becoming the second Los Angeles-based squad to clinch a berth in the MLS Cup playoffs.
"With him joining, they have good people to link up with the No. 9," Onuoha said of Pavon. "When you can do that, instead of defending against this guy or that guy in isolated situations, you are defending against groups of players. It’s always a lot harder.
"On the day, they are very difficult to play against. He is definitely one of the better players in the league."
Real Salt Lake doesn’t have much time to rebound, with its final home game of the regular season — and likely the final home game of goalkeeper Nick Rimando’s storied career coming Sunday against the Houston Dynamo.
The club has built up too much to back down now, with a playoff spot at stake and a hungry Dynamo squad on the other side.
"We're very disappointed in the locker room today," Onuoha said. "We’re lucky to have one more game after this season (at home), and it’s a big game for certain of our players. We want to finish the end of the season as strong as possible."
Kickoff is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. MDT on KMYU and streamed on KSL.com.