- Ethan Gomberg

The story started with what was termed the Turf War in the media. Both clubs were throwing out banter about whose turf was superior. When it came down to it, the story was really about scoring and who would make it count. RSL knew going into this match that they couldn’t take their usual mid season approach of grinding out a draw. The Crew on the other hand, knew that with away goals weighted, they could progress with only a draw.

The match had a few early surprises, to be expected with the disciplinary actions taken in the first leg. RSL backline leader Nat Borchers was out with a red, received in an altercation with Crew starting forward Emilio Renteria, who was also suspended. The whole sordid affair began with starting left-back Tony Beltran getting red carded in the 53rd minute of the first leg, leaving RSL shorthanded for the rest of the game. In place of Renteria, the newly re-signed Jeff Cunningham returned to the Crew starting lineup for the first time since 2004. The match also saw a return of sorts for Cunningham in Utah, where he picked up the Golden Boot in 2006.Replacing Borchers was relative newcomer Chris Schuler. Schuler had a hot/cold season for RSL last year, playing well away at Seattle last year but then taking a lot of blame for the loss to Cruz Azul. His work during the last week of practice was the main reason that coach Jason Kreis played him instead of usual backup Rauwshan MacKenzie. Also starting due to suspension was defender Robbie Russell.

RSL started out fairly aggressively, with both starting forwards Espindola and Saborio pushing high. An early hard hit on RSL midfielder Andy Williams lead to Salt Lake's first corner of the season (zero corners for RSL in the first leg). Crew countered with their own fairly dangerous pass from a free kick by Robbie Rogers, but the delivery found no teammates to head it home. Shortly after, RSL made a few dangerous runs along the wings. Espindola almost linked up Saborio on the ensuing play. Andy Williams, looking fairly spry for a 33 year old, was weaving in and out of traffic to help push the RSL offense. RSL's Will Johnson got into the excitement around the 12th minute, but hit the crossbar and Saborio was unable to follow up. Cunningham and Andres Mendoza made a few runs early on but Schuler and Olave were effective in shutting them down.

By the 20th minute, Andy Iro showed why he was named captain of the Crew for the match, breaking down several dangerous forays from the home side. Saborio proved why RSL spent DP money on him by scoring his seventh CONCACAF Champions League Goal in the 23rd, assisted by Javier Morales.

Afterwards, the Crew stepped up the aggression in their quest for an equalizer. Miranda and Mendoza tried to take advantage of RSL on the right, with a nice shot saved by Rimando denying them.

In the 31st minute, RSL led by the dynamic Espindola, won a corner that ended up with Ray Burse almost hitting it in his own goal. Although Crew continued to apply the pressure, Morales slipped in during the 36th minute for his first goal of the night from an assist by the evergreen Williams.

Though Crew pressed more, they were visibly distressed and doing their utmost to try to change the momentum of the game as RSL, at home, were clearly controlling the match. Gaven and Rogers especially were doing the most heavy lifting for the Crew.

New Crew defender and former LA/Portland/Carolina midfielder Josh Gardner received this leg’s first caution, when a yellow was issued in the 43rd minute for a foul on Morales. Columbus were happy to leave it 2-0 at the half.

The 2nd half started with no substitutions.

Mendoza and the Crew offense sparked to life in the 49th minute with a quick goal to bring the game back into contention at 2-1. Some slippery work by both midfields caused quick turnovers on both sides. RSL had some early half attempts with corners but they didn’t result in the scoring opportunities that the buildup alluded to. Rookie Crew midfielder Cole Grossman made it interesting when he shot from distance, with a near miss.

An RSL breakaway with Espindola speeding down the right side was a letdown for the crowd, when it ended up a wasted opportunity. Gardner caused some controversy when he shot his free kick at Morales, who made contact with the ball, and it earned Morales a yellow. In the ensuing play, Gardner impeded Beckerman causing some uproar at Rio Tinto Stadium. Gardner was soon subbed for recent signing Julius James, a defender for a defender, signaling that Columbus head coach Robert Warzycha was still keeping to his normal strategy.

By the 63rd minute it had quieted down a bit (except for some supporters in the south goal). The Crew seemed content to allow RSL to pass the ball around the midfield. On a fairly dangerous corner from RSL, Espindola headed it high, but it was caught by Crew’s Burse. Crew apparently had seen enough from Jeff Cunningham when they subbed him out in the 65th minute for recent MLS Superdraft pick Justin Meram, formerly of the University of Michigan.

On the 68th minute, RSL’s forward tandem produced a very nice run (withsome great work by sophomore defender Schuler) but some quick thinking by new Crew goalie Burse saved a shot that seemed destined for goal. In quick succession RSL marched down the field again but the result cleared the bar, much to the delight of the Crew.

In the 71st minute, goal scorer and RSL DP Saborio was subbed for highly-rated Brazilian youngster Paulo Araujo Jr. Paulo has some high hopes placed on him by the RSL brain trust, and these are the moments when he could shine. Some early attempts nearly produced concrete evidence of his reputation for sniffing out goals. The Crew shifted gears when midfielder Emmanuel Ekpo was subbed out for young American Dilly Duka.

The Paulo substitution seemed smart when he and Morales produced a goal in the 77th minute (Morales's 3rd in CCL play) , moving RSL ever closer to that promised land, although on later review showed Espindola might have been offside while shielding Burse on the goal. Many calls seemed to go against the Crew, right or wrong.

85th min brought forward Espindola off in favor of Jean Alexandre, a RSL bench player known for his hard work ethic and aggressive play. They continued this with Morales coming off for midfielder Ned Grabovoy. RSL was clearly trying to slow the game down and maintain possession. As the game continued, this tactic seemed to work well for Kreis’s men on the field.

The Crew tried to push the ball up but simple mistakes in the final 3rd ended up losing possession at critical times. They seemed to start losing cohesion as the game entered stoppage time. Andy Williams and RSL weren’t done with the obvious home domination when he scored on a free kick in the 94th minute from the top of the box, giving the home side the emphatic winning scorline of 4-1.

RSL now looks to play either Saprissa or Olympia in the next round, hosting that game at Rio Tinto on March 15th. If their performance against the Crew is the RSL we will see in 2 weeks, good things are surely in store for the RSL fan base. As for the Crew, their fans can take heart that they showed some flashes of brilliance and perhaps they aren’t a complete redo from 2009/2010. Captain Andy Iro said that he “needed to take the loss on himself” and indicated that the Crew will work through these speed bumps.

Indeed, Coach Warzchya mentioned in his post game press conference that he feels once injuries are overcome, his team will excel.

Both of these teams are poised for the MLS regular season, but one saw victory tonight and we will see if it will lead to a Champions League championship for RSL. RSL has great depth, which was expressed nicely by standout new starter Chris Schuler, who said when asked if he will start again; “Are you kinding?, not on this team”. That about sums it up.

COLUMBUS CREW – Burse, Balchan, Iro, Miranda, Gardner (James 60), Gaven, Ekpo (Duka 75), Grossman, Rogers, Cunningham (Meram 65), Mendoza

GOALS – Mendoza 49 (Gaven)

REAL SALT LAKE – Rimando, Russell, Olave, Schuler, Wingert, Williams, Beckerman, Morales (Grabavoy 87), Johnson, Saborio (Araujo 71), Espindola (Alexandre 85)

GOALS – Saborio 23 (Morales,Williams), Morales 36 (Williams, Espindola), Morales 77 (Araujo), Williams 95+ (unassisted)

CAUTIONS – Gardner 43 (yellow), Morales 57 (yellow), Miranda 94+ (yellow)

Attendance: 15,405.

Referee: M. Geiger

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