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MLS Playoffs: Real Salt Lake Advances to Western Finals with Gutsy Win

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MLS Playoffs: Real Salt Lake Advances to Western Finals with Gutsy Win
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Real Salt Lake came into the home leg of their Western Conference semifinals matchup against the Los Angeles Galaxy needing to overcome a deficit.  In the first leg, the Galaxy had notched a 1-0 victory at home in LA thanks to an absolutely brilliant long strike from defender Sean Franklin.

That goal threatened to oust RSL from the playoffs, if they couldn't come up big on Thursday night.

To say that RSL did indeed come up big in their 2-0 win over the Galaxy would be a massive understatement.

In what was possibly the most inspired and gutsiest performance RSL has had since winning the 2009 MLS Cup on penalty kicks against the Galaxy, Jason Kreis' team dug deep in a tension-filled game that sent RSL on to the Western Conference Finals against Portland.

In the first half, RSL was very much in control and had several near misses. In the 35th minute, Sebastian Velasquez finally put the team on the board by heading home a cross from Chris Wingert. Velasquez's goal tied up the aggregate for the series at 1-1. 

RSL continued to push in the second half, but a Chris Schuler header hit the crossbar in the 74th minute while an Alvaro Saborio shot in the 78th minute banged off the post. 

In the 84th minute, it appeared that RSL had finally broken through and taken the lead in the series when Javier Morales blasted home a free kick from outside the box, but the goal was negated by an extremely questionable off-ball foul call against RSL that has still not been clarified.

As stoppage time finished, the series remained tied at 1-1 on aggregate, necessitating two 15-minute overtime periods.

12 minutes into the first overtime period, RSL got the magic it was looking for. Morales sent a cross to the far post that took an interesting trajectory on this windy night, and Schuler made an impressive forward leap with one foot extended to smash it into the small gap between Galaxy keeper Jaime Penedo and the post.

The first overtime period finished with RSL just 15 minutes away from advancing to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since losing to the Galaxy there in 2011.

And then things got truly crazy.

Saborio went down just minutes into the second overtime period with an injury to his hip flexor, unable to return for the rest of the game. Unfortunately for Salt Lake, head coach Kreis had already used all three of the team's allotted substitutions, forcing RSL to play a man down while trying to protect the lead.

With a man advantage, the Galaxy got quite aggressive, with the majority of the second overtime period being played in or around RSL's box. Real Salt Lake stood strong, continually deflecting shots in the box safely away from goal.

Things nearly took another terrible turn for RSL when Cole Grossman blocked a shot with his head, and wound up stumbling to the ground and started staggering about, obviously shaken severely by the shot to the head. Already playing a man down, he had to stay in the game and did an admirable job.

LA had several more chances and nearly tied it up with just minutes remaining thanks to an Omar Gonzalez shot from just outside the box that dipped and curved erratically in the wind.  Club legend Nick Rimando came up huge on the play, managing to block the shot with his face after an unpredictable bounce and then fall on the rebound despite being visibly shaken up on the play. 

Eventually, the two minutes of stoppage time tacked onto the period came to an end, and referee Baldomero Toledo's whistle sent the stadium unto a delirious celebration. 

Despite all the setbacks and obstacles, Real Salt Lake is moving on to the Western Finals, thanks to a gritty performance that will go down in team history as the stuff of legends.

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