Real Salt Lake didn’t pack a full lineup for its inaugural 2023 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup match.
But Damir Kreilach packed his scoring boots.
Kreilach notched a brace, and Henderson native Danny Musovski added his first goal in an RSL uniform as time expired to help Salt Lake to a 3-1 win over Las Vegas Lights FC after extra time Wednesday night at Cashman Field.
The one that started it all. pic.twitter.com/vW7pB2C1kj— Real Salt Lake (@realsaltlake) April 27, 2023
“You know, the Cup games are always so fun to play in,” said Kreilach, who was making his first start since March 25 against St. Louis. “Even before the game, I said in the locker room that it was going to be a tricky game — especially when you are playing the teams a league below you. The most important thing is to put the fight in and concentrate, and then the quality will come out.
“You always have to have a little bit of luck in these games, too. They had a lot of chances, and at the end of the day, we did as well … but at the right time, we found a way to get it done.”
An extra-time brace for the King himself pic.twitter.com/x1KZBRFj5q— Real Salt Lake (@realsaltlake) April 27, 2023
Gavin Beavers made six saves for Real Salt Lake to earn his first win as a starter in a Real Salt Lake uniform. But the style of the visitors’ win on the road in Sin City was less about Kreilach (though it certainly was), or even Musovski or Beavers, with respect to those standouts.
The biggest note was the back line, and who played center back — or more effectively, who didn’t.
RSL finished the match without a central defender, after Erik Holt was forced off with a substitution in the final minutes of regulation. From there, Pablo Mastroeni made a tactical adjustment to pair his outside backs of Bode Hidalgo, Bertin Jacquesson, Emeka Eneli and Bryan Oviedo in the most make-shift of back lines.
“I remember playing in this tournament, and every game, you never know what you’re going to get,” RSL coach Pablo Mastroeni said. “Obviously, the dimensions of the field, the way they play on it, and then going down two center backs and ending the game with four outside backs on the field … There was a lot of adapting on the field.
“I think the guys showed a lot of resilience, and some good intensity and good effort. We knew we were going to have to match their intensity; this was a huge game for Las Vegas, and it was a huge game for us, as well.I felt like if we could mask that intensity, then our quality would shine through.”
And they somehow got it done, snapping a winless skid in the Open Cup that dates back to 2016 with RSL’s first-ever road win in the competition. That includes a loss to USL League One side Northern Colorado at home a year ago, a moment that has haunted RSL in the year since.
But Cup games mean more, and Wednesday’s result will go a long way for Salt Lake, both in the Open Cup and in a return to MLS play Saturday against the Seattle Sounders.
“We saw so many weird results, with other leagues beating MLS teams, and it’s totally normal. From a fan’s perspective, you think MLS teams will win these games easily,” Mastroeni said. “But they are very tricky games, and you have to take them very seriously.
“At the end of the day, we are building our confidence. We have two games, two wins, and we have to keep going with Seattle in front of us.”
Beavers made four saves on six shots faced in the first half, including tipping a ball on the final play of the first half to help the visitors to a scoreless draw at the break.
Real Salt Lake nearly took the lead in the 12th minute, but Kreilach’s shot was ruled offside for the club that held nearly 58% of possession in the first half. But Las Vegas put four shots on target to RSL’s one before the break.
A flurry of chances in the 68th minute ended with Kreilach’s header being saved in the top left corner, and the captain returning from injury-related recovery had another chance four minutes later that sailed wide.
The visitors held Las Vegas without a shot on goal in the second half until the 81st minute, but no goal came through 90 minutes of regulation.
Playing a jumbled lineup with Jefferson Savarino back home and Andres Gomez staying on the bench until extra time, RSL tried to get a goal from a rejuvenated Kreilach and young players in starting roles like rookies Ilijah Paul and Eneli or substitute Muosovski. Eighteen times, the visitors lofted a shot, but only four of those shots fell on target in regulation.
But on his ninth shot of the night, Kreilach got one to fall, giving RSL a 1-0 advantage on the final touch of the first half of extra time with a header from Jacquesson in the 105th minute.
Moments later, Maikel Chang added the save of the match on a goal-line clearance that kept Lights FC at bay in the early minutes of the second extra-time session. Gomez nearly doubled RSL’s lead in the 110th minute, but Luke Stauffer equalized instead a minute later with his third goal in as many matches for Las Vegas.
You thought it was over? Hardly.
Kreilach scored again in the 115th minute, taking a pass from Gomez (with a superb set up from Emeli) to bang in a right-footed shot from the center of the box to give the visitors a 2-1 lead.
Mastroeni “definitely thought” about taking Kreilach off, with the ailing captain still recovering from back surgery that caused him to miss most of last season
In hindsight, he’s glad he didn’t.
“We want to win this game, and Dami in and around the box is the guy who finds the right spots. He’s prolific in front of goal,” Mastroeni said. “You have these ideas going into the game, and then you have to watch the game and feel the momentum of it. Whatever tactical change you’re making, how is a team affected by it? And I felt like when we went to two (strikers), Dami was much more effective on goal. And his experience and leadership was critical to the group.”
Then Musovski, who met with several dozen family and friends before the match to support the UNLV graduate and Henderson, Nevada native, finished off the scoring in the closing seconds after Jacquesson’s initial attempt in the 120th minute was saved and Musovski buried the put-back for the final margin.