It’s no secret that no MLS team has ever come away from Mexico with a meaningful win. Coming into this match, MLS teams had a combined 0-19-2 record when playing competitive games South of the Border.
Real Salt Lake were hoping to change that—and they very, very nearly did.
In their Group A match in Mexico City against giants Cruz Azul, RSL were leading 3-1 midway though the second half on a field that was practically submerged underwater following heavy rain. However, the MLSers coughed up four late goals to ultimately come home with nothing.
"We came in wanting to win, and if we walked away with a draw we could deal with that," head coach Jason Kreis said. "If we came away with a loss, as we did, we could at least hold our heads up and say that we came here to play our soccer and put our best foot forward. And they beat us at it today.”
It appeared RSL were doomed early on. Just 40 seconds into the match, Will Johnson put away a rebound for an apparent goal before being called for a controversial offside.
Five minutes later, another bit of slight controversy occurred. Cruz Azul appeared to take a free kick with a ball that was still rollin. The restart led directly to a goal to give Cruz Azul the advantage.
However, the officiating was much more judicious for the rest of the match, and it was instead the MLSers play that would ultimately lead to their undoing.
When Javier Morales was subbed out in the second half, RSL appeared to lack the quality of possession. The game then became more of a back-and-forth affair, and ultimately Cruz Azul was able to create chances—and finish them.
“I do think we got a little too comfortable [at 3-1] and thought that maybe it was going to be easy," Kreis said. "We’ve seen it in our league before where, if we get a two-goal lead, the other team quits. And obviously there’s no quit in Cruz Azul.”
No one could have predicted how the game would end, though.
Cruz Azul scored in the 75th, 88th, 89th and 97th minutes, though Johnson tallied a lone goal in that stretch. As the rain continued to pour, the flurry of goals came on a surface that featured standing water, making the ability to link all the more more difficult.
“Steadily the rain just came and it wouldn’t let up," team captain Kyle Beckerman said. "Both teams had to play in the stuff. I think we had some mental lapses and they made us pay for it. That’s all it came down to. We made them pay for some lapses as well, but they made us pay for one more than we did.”
RSL suddenly found themselves outside their comfort zone, especially in the absence of Morales, who was likely ushered to the bench in order to rest up for the upcoming match at Toronto.
The inability to hold onto a 3-1 second-half lead may come back to haunt Salt Lake. They are a strong attacking team, but in the past they have struggled to close out games. They’ve done much better in this regard this year, but the potent attack of Cruz Azu may have exposed a slight chink in the armor.
“[Losing the lead] is gravely disappointing, and it’s not like our team," Kreis said. "After we went through a good end of the season last year and won the championship, I feel that we’re a mature team that typically doesn’t make mistakes like that. I’ll have to talk with some of the players, as I think it came down a little to fatigue at the end of the match.”