Zimmerman, LAFC gain measure of revenge on Real Salt Lake in exciting playoff rematch

Los Angeles FC's Walker Zimmerman, second from left, raises his arms in celebration after scoring against Real Salt Lake during the second half of an MLS soccer match Saturday, March 23, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Walker Zimmerman (25) celebrates his game-winning goal with LAFC teammates on Saturday at Banc of California Stadium. (Associated Press)

LOS ANGELES — Last November, Walker Zimmerman’s own goal sent Real Salt Lake to the Western Conference semifinals.

Saturday night, Zimmerman’s goal sent Real Salt Lake home with a loss.

The center back’s strike in the second minute of stoppage time lifted Los Angeles Football Club past RSL 2-1 at Banc of California Stadium and to the top of the conference table.

This marks the second stoppage-time victory of the season for LAFC, which beat Sporting KC in the opener thanks to Adams Diomande’s late winner.

Does that make the wracked nerves worth it?

“It makes it more fun,” Zimmerman said. “That’s for sure.”

Roaming the offensive third after RSL went down to 10 men thanks to Justin Portillo’s 84th-minute red card, Zimmerman took a pass from Niko Hämäläinen and teed up a strike that left goalkeeper Nick Rimando motionless as it tucked into the right side of the net:

Zimmerman admitted the shot took a slight deflection, but nonetheless he felt confident in the moment.

“I think I’ve always had that mentality, whether it’s in soccer or basketball or baseball,” Zimmerman said. “I want to be the guy where I have the ball in my hands the last second of the game. ... I love those moments. I love scoring goals, and I love competing.”

Until that goal, it looked like RSL was going to leave with a smash-and-grab point. The visitors took the lead in the 35th minute, when Damir Kreilach converted a penalty drawn by Sebastian Saucedo, who was brought down in the box by Latif Blessing:

On the front foot most of the night, LAFC equalized a few minutes later through Diego Rossi. It started with a great bit of link-up play between Carlos Vela and Blessing, who tried to play through Diomande but saw his pass tackled away.

It fell fortuitously to Rossi, who crashed the left side of the box and was sure with his finish:

The postgame tenor at Banc of California Stadium was decidedly different than in last season’s MLS Cup Playoffs, when RSL beat LAFC 3-2 in the knockout round to end its debut foray into the league.

Both sides were missing players Saturday due to the international break. RSL became the first team to start six homegrown players in MLS history and stayed compact to let the hosts play, which produced some nervy moments and several fine stops by Rimando but nearly proved to be the right formula.

“Difficult game for sure,” said LAFC head coach Bob Bradley. “They came in, they were well organized. Obviously they're missing guys, so they had a plan to try to make things difficult.”

Portillo’s red card came when he raised his arm to Rossi’s face in an attempt to stop him from chasing down a ball.

RSL’s opening fixtures have been brutal, with away losses already against the top team in each conference (it also lost 5-0 at D.C. United) as well as a draw at Houston, which is currently third in the West. So despite the setbacks, there figure to be calmer waters ahead.

But LAFC will take the win and now has 10 points from 12 this young campaign. If the club can navigate a trip to San Jose next weekend, that would set up a showdown with Wayne Rooney and D.C. United in two weeks in the nation’s capital.

What a thriller that could be. Might be tough to top Saturday’s finish.

Joey Gulino is the editor of Yahoo Soccer and moonlights as a writer. Follow him on Twitter at @JGulinoYahoo.

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