Real Salt Lake did their best to press a home-field advantage in the first leg of their Western Conference Semifinals matchup against the Los Angeles Galaxy, who benefited from a brilliant performance by goalie Jaime Penedo to secure a 0-0 draw.
The Galaxy finished the season five points ahead of Real Salt Lake and were hoping to come away with a crucial away goal at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Real Salt Lake relayed the biggest key to the game for the team, which centered on the potent attacking trio of Robbie Keane, Gyasi Zardes and Landon Donovan:
However, it would be the home side that featured the majority of the attacking flair, playing the ball forward smoothly and crisply while forcing the Galaxy to rely almost solely on the counterattack to generate any semblance of offense.
The game got off to a fairly quiet start, the booming drums in the stands notwithstanding, as both teams sized each other up. Keane got off the first shot of the match in the fifth minute, but goalie Nick Rimando made a clear-cut save. The strike would be one of only three shots on the night for the Galaxy.
Much has been made of Donovan's decision to retire from the sport, which only adds to the focus and scrutiny surrounding these playoffs. The Guardian's Matthew Tomaszewicz did point out that the 32-year-old could still beat players at the drop of a hat:
Real Salt Lake got the first dangerous chance of the game. Javier Morales sent in a corner that landed right at the top of the goalie box, but striker Alvaro Saborio—taking advantage of some shoddy marking by the Galaxy—pushed his glancing header just wide.
The Galaxy were pinned back in their own half quite often and had to call upon some fine efforts from Penedo, who finished with six saves, and defenders A.J. DeLaGarza and Omar Gonzalez.
DeLaGarza started off the Galaxy's best chance of the night when he sacrificed his body and blocked a swerving shot in the 36th minute.
The Galaxy surged upfield on a counter. Donovan received the ball just outside of the penalty box and played a perfect through pass to forward Zardes, who put the ball into the back of the net. However, the referee declared Zardes offside, and the goal would not stand.
Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl was disappointed in the playoff officiating thus far, also citing an earlier incident involving Joao Plata:
Goal.com's Seth Vertelney felt the call was incorrect, and he had fairly conclusive evidence to back up his claim:
Real Salt Lake continued to press and work on beating defenders, forcing the Galaxy into a number of fouls (25 total for the match).
Saborio was particularly dangerous up front, while midfielder Kyle Beckerman put in his usual workmanlike performance protecting the back line and playing smart, simple passes.
Real Salt Lake started off the second half winning several free kicks in the attacking half. The Galaxy were barely able to contain the passing and movement of Plata and midfielders Luis Gil and Luke Mulholland. MLS displayed some of Gil's deft footwork:
The contest grew noticeably chippy as the game went on as both teams grew visibly frustrated with the lack of scoring. Keane would get another fine chance late in the match, but defender Nat Borchers did very well to break up his run in a one-on-one situation.
The Salt Lake Tribune's Chris Karmani noted the atmosphere of the game after a yellow card from Robbie Rodgers late in the match:
Interestingly, Real Salt Lake manage Jeff Cassar didn't make a substitution during the match, apparently content with his starting XI's ability to attack. He may have missed an opportunity to add fresh legs, as Real Salt Lake's advantage died out as the game went on.
The biggest reason for the draw was clearly the man in the Galaxy goal, Penedo. He was locked in during the contest, marshaling his defenders, maintaining excellent positioning and, of course, making brilliant saves. The Galaxy relayed one of his best efforts against a right-footed screamer from Morales:
Manager Bruce Arena made one lone substitution in the match, bringing on forward Alan Gordon in the 87th minute for midfielder Baggio Husidic. The move pushed Zardes back to the midfield to support the attackers, but the change was too little, too late and the game ended in a neutral fan's worst nightmare, the nil-nil draw.
The Galaxy were unable to grab an all-important away goal, which means there will be plenty of pressure to score in front of the home fans at the Stubhub Center on Nov. 9. Real Salt Lake is a strong, composed team capable of securing a scoring draw on the road.
Real Salt Lake should have some confidence after creating the vast majority of chances in the first leg, but it will be a tough matchup against the Galaxy on their home turf. Los Angeles scored 44 goals at home this season, while allowing just 14. Expect a raucous crowd in the second leg, as the fans cheer on the retiring Donovan in his final bid for MLS hardware.