When Real Salt Lake suffered a defeat at the hands of the Portland Timbers at Rio Tinto Stadium on Nov. 3, playoff hopes seemed bleak. RSL not only had to win its regular season finale on the road against Kansas City, but its fate also depended on the performances of both the LA Galaxy and LAFC.
Decision Day (Nov. 7) arrived and with both the LA Galaxy and LAFC suffering a draw or defeat, the path to the playoffs was now paved, as RSL just needed to win the final game to play playoff soccer.
When a draw and playoff-less season seemed more than likely for the club, Damir Kreilach scored a miraculous, last-second goal in the 95th minute to defeat Kansas City and send The Claret and Cobalt into the postseason as the seventh and final seed in the Western Conference.
Now, nearly a month and two road playoff wins later, Real Salt Lake finds itself among the final four teams competing for the MLS Cup — still riding the wave that Kreilach’s playoff-clinching goal created.
“We started to build momentum in that last game of the season when we clinched the playoffs,” captain Albert Rusnák said. “In the playoffs momentum is the biggest weapon you can have. I can feel it in the group, everybody’s positive, everybody believes and we really have momentum, we just have to use it to our advantage.”
The odds had been stacked against RSL the entire season. Without an owner, the team was picked by pundits to finish near the bottom of the Western Conference standings.
“In the playoffs momentum is the biggest weapon you can have. I can feel it in the group, everybody’s positive, everybody believes and we really have momentum, we just have to use it to our advantage.” — RSL’s Albert Rusnák
Things got even more complicated when head coach Freddy Juarez decided to depart from the club in the middle of the season to take an assistant coach position for the Seattle Sounders.
With no external sources showing very much belief in them, RSL’s players needed to find the belief within themselves if they hoped to have a successful year. The regular season had its ups and downs, but it appears that The Claret and Cobalt have found that inner-belief at just the right time.
“(We have) the belief that we can win any game,” defender Justen Glad said.
“With how we got into the playoffs and the mindset of the team, (we know) that if you battle for 90 minutes you always have a shot and anything can happen in these games. Now, we’re sort of going into games thinking, ‘How can we lose?’”
Leading the way in helping the squad find the belief in themselves has been interim head coach Pablo Mastroeni, who players described as a “great motivator” and just a “great human being.” Mastroeni has always been described as a players coach, but in RSL’s two playoff wins he’s shown that he also has the tactical brainpower as well.
“He came in and was thrown into the deep end of the water,” forward Justin Meram said.
“He’s done a fantastic job of keeping everybody attuned and understanding of their roles. He’s helped me a lot and kept me mentally ready for whatever he asks of me. He’s done that with numerous players and I think you’ve seen the ability rise and you’ve seen the players come together in a way we haven’t seen in years past.”
The club and its interim head coach, that nobody expected to be in this position, now find themselves two wins away from an MLS cup.
RSL will travel to Portland on Saturday to face a Timbers team that beat The Claret and Cobalt three times this year by an aggregate score of 12-4.
Though they haven’t found any success against Portland this year, RSL players and coaches were all harmonious in saying that the Timbers won’t be facing the same RSL squad that they played three times in the regular season.
“I don’t think (the three previous games) apply,” Mastroeni said. “Especially given what we’ve been able to come up with in our last few games on the road, it’ll be a different game, a different mindset for both teams. It’s a game that we’re excited about, that will obviously have its challenges … but I think it’ll be a different team that we see against this Portland team.”