Everyone at Banc of California stadium knew what Saturday night meant for LAFC.
The team itself made it clear. The night was about revenge and redemption. It was about proving that last year’s first-round playoffs loss was a fluke, a mistake. It was about refusing to repeat mistakes. Forward Latif Blessing promised a blowout, a five-goal scoring bonanza to eradicate any memories of the last time LAFC met Real Salt Lake — a bitter night in November that ended with a 3-2 stunner that knocked the promising team out of its inaugural playoffs run before it had even really started.
The sold-out crowd of 22,023 knew, too. They came early to beat the streets clogged with traffic for the Kids Choice Awards, which shut down Figueroa Street just south of the stadium. They wanted to prove the same things.
In the end, it wasn’t a blowout, but between a crafty equalizer from Diego Rossi and a screaming game winner from defender Walker Zimmerman, Saturday night achieved two goals. It kept LAFC undefeated on the season, improving the team to 3-1-0 and catapulting them to the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference. More importantly, the 2-1 victory over Real Salt Lake gave the team everything it could have wanted — sweet, sweet revenge.
But despite the team’s furious attack, Real Salt Lake still managed to draw first blood. It came in a haphazard fashion — on a streaking run on goal, a forward dashed past Latif Blessing, who got his cleats tangled as he dove from behind in an attempt to slash at the ball. It was a cut and dry penalty, committed several feet within the box, and Real Salt Lake did well to capitalize on it. As the whistle blew, keeper Tyler Miller dove right and Damir Kreilach deftly deposited the shot in the left corner of the goal.
Although the goal gave Real Salt Lake a 1-0 lead, it did little to quiet the crowd at Banc of California stadium. As Kreilach had lined up to take the penalty kick, the crowd grew to a deafening roar, with the fans behind the goal leaning out of their seats to flail their arms in an attempt to distract their opponent. As the LAFC players trudged back to midfield, the roar continued, buoyed by the drum line in the North End as it grew.
The fans didn’t sit down, agitated into expectation, and in return, their team delivered almost immediately. Less than five minutes later, the LAFC offense launched an assault on the box, and when a pass was deflected by a defender, forward Diego Rossi was there to clean up the mess. A defender hung on his right shoulder, but Rossi muscled through the contact, never slowing down as he ran through the box and through his shot to bury the ball in the back of the net. The goal was Rossi’s second of the season, placing him second in overall goals for the team.
Rossi’s goal sent the typical, frantic, beer-filled rush of excitement through the home crowd, but it was still only an equalizer. With the score leveled, LAFC launched into its own frantic rush — a flurry of attack in an attempt to claim the lead.
In every aspect, the team outplayed Real Salt Lake. It maintained possession for over 65 percent of the game, dominating Real Salt Lake in its attacking third and forcing the backline onto its heels. LAFC took eight shots in the first half and ratcheted up the pressure even more in the second half, taking 19 shots and placing 7 of them on frame while Real Salt Lake only managed three in total. Many of these were from point blank — early in the second half, Eduard Atuesta collected a ricocheting pass only feet in front of the goal, but when he turned to shoot the ball sputtered off his foot and easily into the belly of the keeper.
As the second half wore down and LAFC continued to fail to finish in the box, both teams’ desperation grew. The game was already riddled with fouls, with Real Salt Lake tallying five yellow cards, but the chippy back-and-forth spiked in the final ten minutes of the game. Justin Portillo finally gifted LAFC with its greatest advantage of the game in the 83rd minute.
When Rossi broke away and tracked down a pass on the right side of the field, Portillo grabbed the forward by the arm, dragging him down to skid into the turf. The referee immediately issued a red card, and LAFC took the field with a one-man advantage and plenty of time.
It took until stoppage time for LAFC, a team well-familiar with last-minute dramatics, to secure the victory. As the team rotated the ball along the top of the box, the Real Salt Lake struggled to rotate, and Zimmerman found himself with the ball and a sprawling gap of grass in front of him. He took two steps and sent a screaming shot into the top right corner of the goal. The keeper didn’t have time to react, and he didn’t leave his feet as the ball whistled into the net and the stadium erupted.
The goal was Zimmerman’s first of the season, and his first in his LAFC career that didn’t come off a corner kick opportunity. He ended the game with a bullhorn in hands, leading the North End in a chant with a Man of the Match scarf draped around his neck, as LAFC and Banc of California stadium buzzed with the joy of another undefeated night.