By TYLER GRAY
SANDY, Utah – Both sides were missing key players due to international call ups but the crowd had all they could handle for the 90-plus minutes of fireworks that took place on Wednesday night at Rio Tinto Stadium.
A controversial red card issued to defender Lovel Palmer didn’t deter Real Salt Lake from equalizing in the dying minutes of stoppage time through a Javier Morales penalty kick to earn a 2-2 draw with the Philadelphia Union.
“After tonight, it’s amazing; I can’t say enough,” RSL head coach Jason Kreis said after the match. “We went through a lot of adversity being down a goal, down a man, and what I felt were a lot of strange decisions by the referee. Continuing to battle on, scoring a goal to tie it, then giving away a goal right after it. Our guys just kept pushing and pushing and pushing, and my hat is off to them.”
The Union took the lead just 13 minutes in the match when forward Conor Casey made a run down the left side of the defense. The veteran got past RSL defender Carlos Salcedo and found a wide-open Sebastian Le Toux in front of the net who poked home the opening goal.
RSL’s early attempts to find a goal took a turn for the worst in the 59th minute when a red card was shown to Palmer for a harsh challenge on Union midfielder Michael Farfan. Replays appeared to show that Palmer got to the ball first and it was actually Farfan who ended up kicking Palmer in the boot, but the referee Ismail Elfath had already made up his mind.
The decision certainly stunned a lot of the players on RSL’s side of the field, and fired up Kreis in his technical area.
“I think it needs to be said that that referee was not ready to referee that game,” Kreis said. “That game, with a sellout crowd, July 4th, in front of our fans in that kind of atmosphere that we provide here, is too much for what I think is a very inexperienced referee that doesn’t have a good feel for the game. I don’t think it’s his fault. I’m not going to berate him for it. But I think that the person who makes that assignment ought to be thinking about that as we go forward.
Referees like that aren’t ready to be involved in that type of match with that type of atmosphere.”
The referee was asked by the Salt Lake pool reporter after the game to explain his reasoning behind the decision to give Palmer a red card.
“From our vantage point, the tackle was considered serious foul play that endangered the safety of the opponent by way of contact of the cleats, exposed cleats, with the shin area of the opponent that ended up being injured,” Elfath said.
Down a man and down a goal, RSL had to dig deep to in the final 31 minutes of the match to equalize. Their first leveler came from U.S. Under-20 star Luis Gil, recently returned from Turkey, heading home a cross from Morales in the 75th minute to make the score 1-1.
RSL’s boisterous crowd was silenced less than a minute later however, when the Union once again took the lead, this time courtesy of a mistake by defender Nat Borchers. Borchers attempted to shephard a long ball from the Union over the endline when forward Antoine Hoppenot picked his pocket. Drawing RSL goalkeeper Josh Saunders off his line, the diminutive forward played a perfect ball for Casey to score easily.
Saunders came up big in third minute of stoppage time to keep RSL alive when he stoned Le Toux in a one-on-one opportunity in on a breakaway.
“That right there was the game,” Kreis said. “I could sort of feel that, as it was brought down. You rely on the goalkeeper so much to make saves at the right time, and he made the absolute biggest save at the absolute best time.”
While the referee may have sent off Palmer to hurt RSL’s chances, they were given a massive lift when in the 95th minute, Union defender Ray Gaddis was whistled for a handball in the box, allowing Morales to step up and tie the match once more, banging one in off the post that Union goalkeeper Zac MacMath had no chance of stopping.
“I’m losing a lot of hair. I’m aging like crazy,” Union head coach John Hackworth said. “We’ve just got to improve. This is the second game in the row where we’ve just lost points at the very end of the game. A couple silly mistakes on our part, but I thought we would learn.”
After four games in a 12 day stretch, Kreis’ side get a well deserved ten-day break before their next match at FC Dallas on July 13.
“Yeah, after four games in  days we’ll be needing it,” Morales said. “So now we’ve had to rest and thinking about the next game.”