FRISCO, Texas — FC Dallas needed a late shot in the arm, and they got just that from Eric Avila in the 88th minute.
The third-year midfielder scored less than a minute after subbing in to help Dallas earn a 2-1 advantage over Real Salt Lake after the first leg of their Western Conference Semifinal series at Pizza Hut Park.
The second leg will be played on Nov. 6 at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah.
RSL drew first blood via Fabian Espíndola just five minutes in. That advantage held until just before halftime when Jeff Cunningham, also a Dallas substitute, netted an unassisted equalizer in the 44th minute.
Both clubs finished the match with 10 men after Javier Morales was sent off for RSL and Atiba Harris was shown a straight red for FCD.
Avila’s goal came in his playoff debut, though he benefited from some dogged work by MVP candidate David Ferreira. The Colombian playmaker had powered through the RSL midfield before being upended, but Avila overlapped Ferreira as he fell and collected the ball just outside the box before blasting it past Nick Rimando's outstretched arm.
Espindola gave RSL the early lead after some pinpoint service by veteran midfielder Andy Williams. The South American striker shook off his defenders to gain possession and was able to fire a deep, curling shot off despite having FCD center back Ugo Ihemelu in close proximity.
The RSL forward's left-footed shot was well hit and landed in the left side of the Dallas net.
However, Dallas earned an equalizer through Cunningham, whose goal came after Ferreira had sent in a cross that deflected off two RSL defenders before landing at the veteran scorer’s feet. Cunningham then finished into the left side of the net for the equalizer.
The seasoned forward had come on in the 32nd minute after starting forward Milton Rodriguez was forced out with a right groin injury. Cunningham's tally was the fifth playoff goal of his career. His last postseason goal came against Dallas in 2005 when he was with Colorado.
Morales’ ejection came in the 69th minute after receiving a second yellow card. The playmaker was booked after a high kick on FCD midfielder Dax McCarty, meaning Salt Lake will now be without one of their best attacking players for next weekend’s second leg at Rio Tinto Stadium.
But FCD will also lack a starting midfielder next weekend after Harris was shown a straight red in the 75th minute following a mid-air battle with Salt Lake’s Will Johnson.
FCD looked poised to go ahead in the 55th as Ferreira found some space in RSL's third of the pitch, but his shot caromed off the right post and away from danger.
In the 68th, fellow Dallas midfielder Marvin Chavez took a shot from distance from the right side that Rimando had to paw away at the far post.
Real Salt Lake 1, at FC Dallas 2
Conference Semifinal- Pizza Hut Park
RSL -- Fabian Espindola 1 (Andy Williams 1) 5
DAL -- Jeff Cunningham 1 (unassisted) 44
DAL -- Eric Avila 1 (David Ferreira 1) 88
Real Salt Lake -- Nick Rimando, Robbie Russell, Jamison Olave, Nat Borchers, Chris Wingert, Andy Williams (Will Johnson 68), Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, Ned Grabavoy, Alvaro Saborio (Robbie Findley 68), Fabian Espindola (Jean Alexandre 73).
Substitutes Not Used: Tony Beltran, Pablo Campos, Collen Warner, Kyle Reynish.
FC Dallas -- Kevin Hartman, Jackson Goncalves, Zach Loyd, Ugo Ihemelu, Jair Benitez (Eric Avila 87), Atiba Harris, Daniel Hernandez, Dax McCarty, Marvin Chavez (Brek Shea 69), David Ferreira, Milton Rodriguez (Jeff Cunningham 32).
Substitutes Not Used: Eric Alexander, George John, Ruben Luna, Dario Sala.
DAL -- Jair Benitez (caution; Reckless Tackle) 25
RSL -- Andy Williams (caution; Reckless Foul) 46
RSL -- Javier Morales (caution; Unsporting Behavior) 49
DAL -- Daniel Hernandez (caution; Unsporting Behavior) 49
RSL -- Javier Morales (caution; Reckless Foul) 69
RSL -- Javier Morales (ejection; Second Caution) 69
DAL -- Atiba Harris (ejection; Serious Foul Play) 75
Referee: Kevin Stott
Referee's Assistants: -Kermit Quisenberry; Cameron Blair
4th Official: Abiodun Okulaja
Time of Game: 1:54
Javier Morales received his second yellow card, and subsequent red card, in the 69th minute. He will be unavailable for game two of the series.
Atiba Harris received a red card for a serious foul while going up for a head ball in the 75th minute. He will be unavailable for game two of the series.