Once again, Real Salt Lake’s improbable playoff run lives on.
Trailing Sporting Kansas City 1-0 after the first half of the Western Conference semifinals at Children’s Mercy Park on Sunday, RSL scored two unanswered second-half goals, including the game-winner by Bobby Wood in the first minute of stoppage time, to advance to the Western Conference Finals.
Just five days removed from its zero shot penalty shootout victory over the Seattle Sounders that had some neutral observers questioning just how much RSL deserved to win the game, the Claret and Cobalt were objectively the better side Sunday afternoon.
Anderson Julio picked up the equalizing goal with his head in the 72nd minute after subbing on in the 57th, giving the team a huge momentum boost that it would carry throughout the remainder of the game.
The win now secures a date with the Portland Timbers at Providence Park that will decide the Western Conference champion.
The game will take place this weekend at either 4 p.m. on Saturday or 1 p.m. on Sunday.
Real Salt Lake struggled mightily in their three games this season against Portland, losing all three by an aggregate score of 12-4.
RSL has looked like a different team in its last three matches though, but whether that will translate to newfound success against Portland remains to be seen.
Here are three takeaways from RSL’s playoff victory Sunday.
Subs make a huge impact
The second half substitutions by interim RSL head coach Pablo Mastroeni were on the money Sunday afternoon.
Julio, Wood and Justin Meram each came on in the 57th minute or later and played a role in both of RSL’s goals.
Julio, in particular, made a tremendous impact on the game. His pace and infectious energy provided a spark to an RSL attack that lacked spice until he came onto the pitch.
The Ecuadorian’s goal in the 72nd minute swung momentum completely toward RSL, which then went on to search for a game-winner.
The Claret and Cobalt were able to get that game-winner and, once again, it was the subs who played a key role in the goal.
Meram’s low cross found the foot of Wood, who guided the ball into the net, giving RSL a spot in the Western Conference finals.
“(Julio) did a great job, Meram did a great job and Bobby obviously capping off the result,” Mastroeni said.
“The guys have been monsters all year coming into the games and really making a difference, and tonight was no different.”
Stoppage time magic continues into the postseason
Throughout the regular season, Real Salt Lake was the best team in MLS when it came to scoring goals in stoppage time, and the trend has continued into the playoffs.
Wood’s goal in the 91st minute gave RSL its eighth — and undoubtedly most important — stoppage time goal this season.
Though it may not be healthy for the hearts of its fans, Real Salt Lake has earned every bit of the “clutch” label.
“There’s no better feeling than scoring a goal,” Wood said, “but for it to be the game-winning goal in the 90th (minute), it’s awesome.”
Proved the doubters wrong
Real Salt Lake’s zero-shot win over Seattle understandably generated a lot of social media buzz from Seattle fans and MLS fans alike.
While much of this buzz delivered praise to RSL for its gutsy performance, a good share of it questioned just how much the Claret and Cobalt deserved to win the game with the all-out defensive tactics it deployed to see the match into a penalty shootout.
Many of RSL’s naysayers predicted a convincing victory for Kansas City. With its performance Sunday, Real Salt Lake assuredly won the respect of those who questioned how it won its first playoff game.
With 11 shots (five of them on target) and nearly 56% possession, RSL showed it can win big games in more ways than one.
Proving doubters wrong has become somewhat of a theme for Real Salt Lake, which has exceeded expectations all season long.
“To be honest, I don’t care if we are underdogs or not,” Damir Kreilach said. “We care about the quality, about mentality and about who we (think) we are, and we showed this today again.
“It’s another historical moment for us. We (still) have two steps until the end, and we are going to give everything to bring it home.”