Colorado Rapids were denied victory in the Desert Diamond Cup final by a rearguard action from 10-man Real Salt Lake in Tucson on Saturday night.
The key moment of this preseason final came seven minutes into the second half as Javier Morales prepared to take a free-kick. Alvaro Saborio clashed with Michael Harrington and was sent off. Eventually, when the dust had settled, Morales curled an unstoppable effort past Clint Irwin.
Rapids fought manfully against a Real side who were now content to sit back. However, the equalizer - which would have taken the contest to penalty kicks - never arrived.
Still, there is much to like about the form of Pablo Mastroeni’s side in this high-profile preseason tournament. Firstly, they made the final on the back of three solid displays in the qualifiers. And, in the showpiece, they battled back through Dillon Serna having fallen behind for the first time in Tucson when Olmes Garcia tapped home in the early stages.
This is a new Rapids side and, in truth, it is still gelling. However, two weeks in Tucson has added further weight to the feeling that Mastroeni and his technical team have made significant progress over the offseason.
An hour before kick on Saturday evening, the head coach achieved an early victory when he called correctly in the coin toss to determine who would wear their first-choice kit. Both sides had turned up with similar looking jerseys but Rapids wore burgundy.
The familiarity did not help them settle as Mastroeni’s men were behind inside eight minutes. Luis Gil escaped down the right and his low cross found its way to the unmarked Garcia at the far post. He slotted the opener into the unguarded net.
Unsurprisingly, Real grew in confidence after the goal and, on the quarter-hour, Morales curled an effort just past the post. Then Bobby Burling cleared off his own line after Garcia had beaten the offside trap and rounded Irwin.
Gradually, the Rapids recovered their poise and then found an equalizer. Persistent pressure eventually told when a Vicente Sanchez shot was spilled by Nick Rimando and Serna tapped home at the far post.
They nearly stole the lead just before the interval when Sanchez led a breakaway and released Dominique Badji on the right. His low shot tested Rimando at the near post.
The second half started with drama. Sjoberg gave away a free-kick five yards outside the area. As Morales prepared to take it, Saborio tussled with Harrington at the far post. The referee deemed it a yellow card offense and, as the Real attacker had already been booked, he saw red.
It was ‘advantage Rapids’ but there would be a twist in the tail. Morales stepped up and curled an excellent free-kick beyond the grasping hands of Irwin and into the top corner.
That two-minute spell would color the rest of the game. Rapids now had to chase the contest and Real would have to let them, in the hope they could soak up the pressure.
Mastroeni’s men struggled to make their advantage tell immediately. But gradually they pushed back Real. Lucas Pittinari fired over and then Sanchez stung the hands of Rimando from distance.
In the final 10 minutes, Rapids were pouring on the pressure. They ended with Sjoberg, and even keeper Irwin, in the attack but Real held on.
Colorado Rapids 1-2 Real Salt Lake
Kino North Stadium, Tucson, Arizona
Colorado Rapids: Clint Irwin, James Riley, Bobby Burling, Axel Sjoberg, Michael Harrington, Marcelo Sarvas, Lucas Pittinari, Vicente Sanchez, Gabriel Torres, Dillon Serna (Carlos Alvarez 78), Dominique Badji.
Real Salt Lake: Nick Rimando, Tony Beltran, Jamison Olave, Chris Schuler, Abdoulie Mansally, Kyle Beckerman, Luis Gil (Jordan Allen 83), Javier Morales, Sebastian Jaime (Devon Sandoval 54), Alvaro Saborio, Olmes Garcia (Luke Mulholland 68).
RSL: 8’ – Olmes Garcia (Luis Gil)
COL: 28’ – Dillon Serna (unassisted)
RSL: 51’ – Javier Morales (unassisted)
RSL: 13’ – Alvaro Saborio (caution)
RSL: 16’ – Kyle Beckerman (caution)
COL: 41’ – Bobby Burling (caution)
RSL: 50’ – Alvaro Saborio (caution/ejection)
COL: 55’ – Gabriel Torres (caution)