For much of the night, it looked like Match 2 might be Real Salt Lake’s final fixture of 2023, as the team trailed 1-0 at halftime thanks to an opener from Houston’s Amine Bassi (28′). But after Cristian Arango entered the pitch in the 56th minute – marking his return from a hamstring injury that saw him sidelined for roughly a month – momentum shifted in the Claret-and-Cobalt’s favor.
“When Chicho comes onto the field, he’s a handful to deal with when we play direct. I think he kind of changed the momentum of the game. Obviously, he had a really good look on goal, but really, it’s his ability to hold the ball up but also put the back line on their [back] feet,” said Mastroeni.
He added: “You live and die by your best players, they’re that important to the group. And I think when Chicho comes into the game, not only does he bring belief into the stadium, but it’s infectious within the group. And his ability to have two or three moments that could’ve changed the game, again, gets the fans involved, gets the players going. It’s something that we haven’t had for probably a month now with Chicho, but really excited with his fitness levels, and the runs he was making, his pressing ability, heading into Game 3.”
RSL should expect to have Arango available in some capacity for Match 3. Mastroeni said postgame that Arango made it through the match without any hamstring issues, and he will be assessed ahead of Saturday’s decisive win-or-go-home tie. The coach did, however, admit doubt about his Designated Player’s ability to go the full 90 should he suit up on the weekend.
Nevertheless, the Colombian striker’s availability is a big-time boost.
“A big player coming into our game, helps us, helps the team, helps everyone individually. When you have a player like Chicho stepping on, it boosts everybody up and gets us pumped up,” said Luna.