Real Salt Lake knows exactly what it needs to do tonight — don't lose.
At all costs, whether it means playing aggressively from the get-go or playing defensively for 90 minutes and praying for a scoreless draw, the plan for RSL is pretty simple this weekend.
With a precarious one-goal cushion heading into the second game of its home-and-home, total goals playoff series at Chivas USA, RSL knows either a win or a tie are good enough to send the club to the Western Conference finals. After that, the MLS Cup is within realistic reach.
"I don't think we're talking much about preserving the lead or protecting anything. I think we're looking at this as a separate game which we want to win," said RSL coach Jason Kreis. "That's really been our mentality all year long."
Duplicating the mentality from its Game 1 win would be ideal for RSL, but that's going to be a tough task for tonight's 8:30 p.m. (MST) kickoff, a match being broadcast on Fox Soccer Channel. In the past six years, the lower seed in the first round has held a one-goal lead heading into the second game eight times — and managed to protect it just three times.
The situation shouldn't be that daunting for the visitors. Not only did RSL prevail at the Home Depot Center earlier this year for one of only two road wins this season, the situation is almost identical to what it faced two weeks ago in Colorado.
In that regular-season finale, RSL only needed a tie to secure the franchise's first, long-awaited playoff berth, but it played very poorly and was fortunate to get a 90th-minute equalizer.
"We went into that game against Colorado knowing we needed to start well and we didn't. They put us under pressure from the first minute. It's going to help us being in that situation before against Colorado. We know how not to do it, because it didn't go well for us," said Joy, who admitted the team got lucky in the end of that game despite an otherwise terrible performance.
Kreis said he didn't instruct his players to come out so defensively against Colorado, it's just the way the game unfolded. He hopes those same players recognize the importance of not duplicating that defense-first mentality again tonight.
The key, according to Kreis and several of his players, will be to put Chivas under pressure whenever it has the ball. It can't allow the Goats' talented midfielders to have too much time and space on the ball, otherwise a Colorado repeat performance might be inevitable.
"As soon as they get on the ball, we've got to have a man out there, whether it's a midfielder or a defender. We've got to make sure we put the man straight under pressure," said Joy. "I don't think they can cope with us if we do that."
That approach worked marvelously in Game 1, and Chivas USA indeed didn't cope. Realistically, though, RSL might've gotten lucky again by scoring in the 90th minute.
Against a more desperate opponent tonight, it's unlikely RSL will be uncorking 21 shots like it had last weekend. The finishing will need to be more clinical if it hopes to tack on a second goal and avoid sweating it out until the final minute.
Clint Mathis said he's confident in the team's ability to do whatever it takes in Game 2.
"I didn't think we played too well in the few games leading up to the playoffs. (At) Colorado, we definitely didn't play well," said Mathis.
"But in the first playoff game we came out to play, that's probably one of our best games this season from start to finish. That's a good sign to see going into the playoffs, when technically it's only four games to win and you're champs. It's a good time to do that."
Real Salt Lake on the air
RSL at Chivas USA
RSL leads series, 1-0
Tonight, 8:30 p.m. (MST)
Home Depot Center,
TV: Fox Soccer Channel
Radio: 700 AM, 1600 AM