SANDY, Utah — Behind goals by a player who'd never scored in MLS before and a defender who spent most of the 2013 season rehabbing an injury, Real Salt Lake rose up and eliminated the two-time defending champion LA Galaxy with a 2-0 extra time win on Thursday night.
In the 35th minute, midfielder Sebastian Velasquez gave RSL the goal it needed to bring the two-match Western Conference Semifinals series even on aggregate. In the 102nd minute, Chris Schuler took a free kick from Javier Morales on the left flank and buried it in the far corner of the net to send the home team through to the Western Conference finals despite playing with 10 men for much of the second half of extra time due to an injury to Alvaro Saborio.
The win at Rio Tinto Stadium gave RSL a 2-1 win on aggregate after Sunday's 1-0 loss in the StubHub Center.
Velasquez picked one heck of a time to score his first professional goal. The 22-year-old Real Salt Lake midfielder took a cross from defender Chris Wingert on the left flank and headed it back across the goal and past goalkeeper Jaime Penedo to draw the Claret-and-Cobalt level in the two-match series.
Ironically, Velasquez only got the start on Thursday night because Ned Grabavoy suffered a hamstring injury in RSL's 1-0 loss to the Galaxy on Sunday and was unable to play. And the closest Velasquez came to scoring previously was in the 2012 season opener in Los Angeles against the Galaxy, when he crossed the ball in front of the goal and it bounced off Sean Franklin — who scored the first leg's only goal — and into the net for an own goal.
RSL left Los Angeles feeling fortunate they didn't give up more than one goal on Sunday and the Galaxy made it through regulation in Rio Tinto Stadium on Thursday with the same kind of luck, as the Claret-and-Cobalt could easily have scored multiple times.
Salt Lake abandoned the defensive 4-5-1 formation it employed for the first two-thirds of Sunday's loss, coming out in its familiar diamond midfield that paid dividends from the start. RSL controlled the run of play for most of the first 35 minutes, managing to fend off a number of dangerous Galaxy counter-attacks.
But despite its chances — and intense pressure after the goal — LA couldn't get the ball in the net. The Galaxy had only one shot on target in 90-plus minutes of regulation.
Penedo kept his team in the game with some smart play and nice saves, and he got some help from the woodwork. A Schuler header hit the crossbar in the 75th minute, and three minutes later Alvaro Saborio put a shot off the post.
And what appeared to be a series-winning goal by RSL sparkplug Javier Morales on an amazing free kick from 40-plus yards out — a shot that didn't touch anyone before it bounced into the net — was negated by an apparent foul call by referee Baldomero Toledo on Schuler for tugging on the jersey of Omar Gonzalez.
The victory exorcised some demons for Real Salt Lake, snapping a streak of futility for the Claret-and-Cobalt on their home turf. RSL had chances to win the 2008 Western Conference title, a 2010 Conference semifinal, the 2010-11 CONCACAF Champions League, and this year's U.S. Open Cup championship in Rio Tinto Stadium — and came up short every time.
Real Salt Lake will face the winner of the other Western Conference Semifinals series between the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders in a two-legged series that begins this Sunday.