After Damir Kreilach’s heroics got Real Salt Lake into the playoffs by the skin of its teeth just over 16 days ago, the Claret and Cobalt now find themselves in the Western Conference semifinals.
RSL defeated second-seeded Seattle In dramatic fashion Tuesday night at Lumen Field, 6-5 in a penalty shootout after a scoreless 120 minutes of play. Goalkeeper David Ochoa saved Seattle’s sixth penalty try and then Justen Glad — narrowly — got the ball over the line for the game-winning penalty kick.
RSL’s win ended a 15-game home playoff win streak for Seattle.
It was a gritty, physical game that saw Real Salt Lake attempt a grand total of zero shots to Seattle’s 21. Despite being outshot so heavily, RSL capitalized on the opportunity the penalty shootout provided after the Sounders couldn’t capitalize on their multitude of chances.
Making the win even more impressive was the fact that RSL was missing captain Albert Rusnak, who announced shortly before the match that he had tested positive for COVID-19. Interim head coach Pablo Mastroeni said that he is unsure of the timeline for Rusnak’s return.
RSL will travel to Children’s Mercy Park — the same stadium where Kreilach punched RSL’s ticket into the playoffs — this Sunday to take on Kansas City for a chance to appear in the Western Conference championship match.
Here are three takeaways from the match:
A valiant defensive effort
Though the shot total may insinuate otherwise, RSL battled defensively for a full two hours of gameplay. From sprinting in recovery to throwing themselves in front of shots, The Claret and Cobalt delivered a rock-solid defensive performance against a potent attack from the Sounders.
It wasn’t just the back line, but the entire lineup that showed out defensively to protect the goal and shutout Seattle. Much will understandably be said about Seattle’s failure to convert chances, but the individual workrate of each RSL player showed just how much the team wanted the win.
Multiple times in his postgame presser, Mastroeni said that it was the mentality that the players showed throughout the entire game that ended up giving his team the defensive edge.
“It says a lot about their mentality and what they’re willing to do for the group,” Mastroeni said. “The guys in the back have become more vocal, demanding more from the guys in front of them to make plays defensively, and today was a great reflection of that—just doing whatever it takes for the team.”
Can’t get much going forward
Despite the incredible defensive effort, the attack for RSL left much to be desired. Zero shots in 120 minutes of play obviously won’t be a very sustainable winning formula going as the team travels to Kansas City.
Like it had throughout many of its final regular games, Real Salt Lake struggled to advance the ball and committed too many turnovers in the midfield that resulted in chances for Seattle. Heavy touches from players advancing the ball in the attacking third also resulted in simple tackles for the Sounders’ back line.
Though the attacking performance was likely just a result of a scrappy playoff game-script, RSL undoubtedly have to produce more goal scoring chances—or any for that matter—if it hopes to continue its playoff run.
Not having Rusnak certainly hurt RSL’s ability to build up attacking plays Tuesday night, but Mastroeni said they have to find ways to replace the captain’s irreplaceable role if the team does end up having to play without him again on Sunday.
“For us, Albert dictates the tempo of the game… and you’ve gotta find ways to make up for that,” Mastroeni said. “Everyone needs to give 10% more.”
Ugly win, but no one cares
If flashy soccer is what you want, this game was not your cup of tea.
Mastroeni said that his players sensed as the game wore on that it would take an ugly, gritty performance from the team if they hoped to leave Seattle with a win, and that’s exactly what they did.
The game required a fair share of dark arts from players like Ochoa, who milked every second of the clock he could as the team did all they could to keep the score level at zero.
RSL recorded a whopping 54 clearances as it opted at times to just keep the ball away from goal rather than risk an attempt at forward run.
Mastroeni said at this point in the season nobody cares how you get the result as long as you get it.
“Playoffs are a different beast,” Mastroeni said. “It wasn’t the game plan, obviously, to not be able to muster good, quality scoring opportunities… but, especially with all our games being on the road from here on out, the onus is on the home team to put on a show, the onus on us is to find a way to win.”