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Walker Zimmerman scores in stoppage time to lift LAFC over Real Salt Lake

Walker Zimmerman scores in stoppage time to lift LAFC over Real Salt Lake
LAFC's Diego Rossi, center, is hugged by teammates Jordan Harvey, left, and Latif Blessing after Rossi's first-half goal against Real Salt Lake on Saturday. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

The last time Nick Rimando visited Banc of California Stadium, fans bought him a beer — several, in fact — bathing the Real Salt Lake goalkeeper with lager in frustration during the playoff loss that ended LAFC’s season.

The next day Rimando good-naturedly tweeted out the names of two local craft brews he would have preferred instead. So Saturday afternoon five members of LAFC’s main supporter’s union showed up at Real Salt Lake’s downtown hotel and gave him two 16-ounce cans of beer and an apology.

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A few hours later, with the good karma of its fans restored, LAFC took advantage of a late red card and a lucky bounce to beat Rimando and Real Salt Lake 2-1 before a sellout crowd of more than 22,000.

Walker Zimmerman scored the winning goal on a deflection a minute into stoppage time and seven minutes after Real Salt Lake midfielder Justin Portillo, a second-half substitute, was sent off for clotheslining LAFC’s Diego Rossi as the two players raced up the right wing.

For unbeaten LAFC (3-0-1), its second win in stoppage time this season not only avenged last season’s playoff result but also moved the team past idle Seattle and into first place in the MLS Western Conference. It also made good the prediction of midfielder Latif Blessing, who last week promised an LAFC victory.

“This was a big game for us,” said Zimmerman, whose right-footed blast from outside the box changed direction after striking the left knee of defender Erik Holt, leaving Rimando no chance to make the save. “To do what we want to do this year and accomplish what we accomplish, we have to win those types of games. Games at home where we should have the majority of possession, we’re going to create a lot of chances. And we just need to learn how to win those types of games to chase Supporters’ Shield, to chase an MLS Cup. “

LAFC dominated in every statistical category, taking a season-high 19 shots, holding the ball more than two-thirds of the time and taking more than twice as many passes as Real Salt Lake, completing more than 86% of them.

“The resiliency, the intensity and the mentality that we’ve had in all of these games so far has been really, really positive. And a big step from last year,” Zimmerman said of an LAFC team that has come back from one-goal deficits four times this season. “These nitty-gritty games that come down to the last few minutes, if you can get three points instead of one, it’s going to be a huge boost in the standings.”

Blessing’s prediction of a victory didn’t seem like a particularly bold call at the time since the team Real Salt Lake (1-2-1) fielded Saturday was far different from the one it used last season — or even last week. The visitors were missing six players (including four starters) to a combination of international duty and red-card suspensions.

Among the absentees was forward Albert Rusnak, who had both of Real Salt Lake’s goals through the season’s first three weeks.

LAFC was without three starters — midfielder Lee Nguyen (who is injured), and forward Christian Ramirez and midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye, both of whom with their national teams. That allowed coach Bob Bradley to give forward Adama Diomande and midfielder Andre Horta their first starts of the season.

But if the lineups gave the game the feel of a junior-varsity scrimmage, the play was passionate and physical, featuring more pushing and shoving than goals.

LAFC spent the first half hour trying to break down a well-organized defense that put five players on the back line. Its best two chances came on a Jordan Harvey volley from the center of the box that went just over the crossbar in the 27th minute and a bending free kick from Carlos Vela at the near post two minutes later.

That opened the door for Real Salt Lake to go in front in the 35th minute on a Damir Kreilach penalty kick, set up when Blessing was called for a foul in the box. The lead was short-lived though, with Rossi tying the score five minutes later.

And Blessing helped make it happen, sending a low pass forward to Diomande, who was charging into the box. The ball was knocked away by Real Salt Lake’s Donny Toia but it caromed directly into of the path of Rossi, who split two defenders and beat a diving Rimando with a left-footed shot just inside the left post for his second goal of the season.

LAFC wouldn’t beat Rimando again until stoppage time when the loss of Portillo opened up space in the Real Salt Lake midway. And Niko Hamalainen, making his MLS debut, took advantage, driving toward the top of the penalty area before laying the ball off for Zimmerman with the game on the line.

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“I’ve always had that mentality, whether it’s in soccer or basketball, baseball. I want to be the guy where I have the ball in the last seconds of the game,” said Zimmerman, who has scored five goals in his two seasons at LAFC, four of them game winners. “I love those moments. I love scoring goals. And I love competing, I love winning.

“To never give up, to stay composed in those final minutes, it just shows the character of this group and how we’ve made a lot of progress from last year to this year.”

Bradley agreed.

“A good win on a night where you know, especially when you go down, it’s not going to an easy game,” he said. “I’m pleased with the way we continue to grow as a team. The mentality, the leadership, those things are going in a good direction.”

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