In a match-up that could wind up being an MLS Cup Final preview, Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City played a physical match that left little doubt about two things.
There isn't that much separating two of the best teams in MLS, and those two teams really don't like each other.
On Saturday night, Sporting KC went to Rio Tinto Stadium and pushed the home team to the brink, going after RSL rather than sitting back. Sporting couldn't solve RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando though as the veteran keeper stopped every shot sent his way, helping a Nat Borchers header goal stand up in a 1-0 victory.
Rimando finished with five saves on the night for the shutout, his 12th of the season.
Borchers provided the winning goal, heading home a Kyle Beckerman free kick in the 54th minute.
“I believe that this team can win in multiple ways," RSL head coach Jason Kreis said. "I think it sends a message to the rest of the league that if a brawl is going to break out and it’s going to be a wrestling match, well, we can win that way too.”
It was a physical match that saw the teams combine for 34 fouls and four yellow cards on a night when referee Ricardo Salazar could have called several more fouls and issued more cards.
Sporting KC started the match well, pushing the RSL back-line, and even drawing a yellow card on converted left back Chris Schuler, who struggled to deal with Kei Kamara on the flank. Sporting KC couldn't turn that early possession into a goal though as Rimando dealt with every challenge well, including chances from Aurelien Collin in the 7th and 24th minutes.
“The difference in the first half was Nick (Rimando); he was excellent," Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes said. "He saved probably two, three very good chances, kept a clean sheet and kept them in the game in that perspective.”
Real Salt Lake broke through in the 54th minute after Collin fouled Andy Williams to set up an RSL free kick. Beckerman struck a perfect set piece that found a streaking Borchers, who had easily beaten Collin to the header for the only goal of the match.
“It was kind of funny. It was almost like Kyle and I drew it up like a play in basketball," Borchers said of his winning goal. "I just made sure I curled my run, he hit the perfect ball, and Jimmy Nielson’s in no-man’s land."
Sporting KC kept on pressing for the equalizer, but never could get past Rimando, who saved his best save for the 61st minute when he stopped a shot from KC defender Julio Cesar.
The loss was a disappointing one for Sporting KC, which certainly played well enough to come away from Rio Tinto Stadium with a point. The lost kept Sporting KC in second place in the East, while the victory helped Real Salt Lake move into third place in the Western conference after their fourth straight win.
“We were very good in the run of play," Vermes said. "I walk away thinking we played very well tonight and could have walked away with something more then zero points.
"But credit to Real, a good team, and I’m sure that if we keep playing the way we are, we will meet in the playoffs at some point.”