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Real Salt Lake sends message to all of MLS

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If there is any trend when it comes to Canadian fans’ rooting interest in the MLS playoffs, an educated guess would be that Real Salt Lake would get a good show of support — considering that Canadian national-team regular Will Johnson is a major part of the RSL set-up.

And if there is a group of Canadian fans who want to see Real Salt Lake return to the form it showed in the early part of the season — when it looked two steps better than anyone else in the league, including the Los Angeles Galaxy — they would have been overjoyed by Saturday night’s performance.

Real Salt Lake battered Seattle 3-0 in the first leg of their Western Conference semifinal at Rio Tinto Stadium. And you could argue that the star of the game was Seattle goalie Kasey Keller. If not for the Sounders’ keeper, who stopped a bevy of fantastic chances, the second leg in Seattle might have seen the home team go in trailing by a half-dozen goals.

Keller stopped two rasping drives from Johnson; he stopped Javier Morales from point-blank range. He made a great reaction save to stop a left-footed drive from Fabian Espindola.

The final shots-on-target tally? RSL 11, Sounders, ahem, zero.

Real Salt Lake has had to deal with injuries and emotional rollercoasters in 2011; the team lost midfield general Morales to a broken ankle and torn ligaments. Jamison Olave, last year’s defender of the year, missed time (and left with a muscle problem Saturday). And, maybe most important of all, the team had to deal with the hangover of falling just one goal short of winning the CONCACAF Champions League.

Remember that, before all of that happened, RSL was everyone’s pick to take MLS Cup, to cut through the league like a knife through butter. And, through the first month and a half of the season, RSL lived up to the hype.

And, even though RSL came into the playoffs with a string of poor results, coach Jason Kreis was able to put together a starting XI that finally looked like the starting XI we saw back in April.

And, without Mauro Rosales, Seattle looked like, er, Vancouver compared to RSL.

With the altitude helping fatigue the visitors, RSL put Seattle through 90 minutes of hell.

Ironically, for a team that prides itself on having such a complete lineup, a moment of selfishness tinged the first goal.

After a fantastic pass from Morales cracked the Seattle back four wide open, defender Chris Wingert, who had jumped into the attack, unleashed a low shot that Keller could only reach with his fingertips. He didn’t get enough of the ball to stop it from crossing the line. But striker Alvaro Saborio, instead of shepherding the ball as it crossed the line, broke the unwritten rule and put his foot into it. Saborio was close — no camera angle was definitive — to being offside, but it did force referee Mark Geiger to consult with his linesman.

Saborio’s second goal of the night was a work of genius, though, a backheel stab at a low Morales cross that left Keller absolutely flat-footed.

Substitute Ned Grabavy smashed home a goal late to put Seattle under extreme pressure.

And Johnson? Well, he had an outstanding game. If MLS was to have some sort of iron-man contest to see who is the fittest player in the league, you would have more than a few GMs and coaches put money on Johnson. Even late into the game — at altitude — Johnson was making 40-yard dashes back and forth to block shots, intercept passes and make tackles. His distribution from the left side was excellent and, as mentioned before, he forced Keller into two excellent saves.

I saw Johnson at Real Salt Lake’s first training session of the season at the University of Utah, and he annihilated the dreaded “beep test.” After other RSL players — and these are soccer players, folks, who we consider to be some of the fittest athletes out there — had cried uncle, Johnson was still out there, doing lap after lap.

Canadian fans saw that dedication on Saturday. And MLS got a not-so-subtle warning. Real Salt Lake is back.

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