Unsung hero Russell shines in RSL's injury-hit defense

SALT LAKE CITY — Playoff time is supposed to bring out the best in players. That is certainly the case for Real Salt Lake after their upset victory over Seattle Sounders in the opening round of the playoffs.

Numerous players seemed to find a second wind in the offseason, and they’ll need plenty more of that if they want to take the Western Conference crown over the star-laden LA Galaxy on Sunday (9 pm ET, ESPN2, Deportes, TSN2, GET TICKETS).

One of those who has taken their game to the next level is often overlooked defender Robbie Russell, who earned the praise of his coach after Wednesday’s second leg in Seattle.

“He’s been absolutely spectacular in the last two matches,” Kreis told MLSsoccer.com after his return to Salt Lake. “[He’s] probably the best defender of all of them in the two matches. He’s consistent in making plays, and making tackles when it counts. That’s what you need is guys with experience who step forward in those critical situations.”

“Playoff intensity,” said Russell of the reason for his improved play. “It’s one of those things where I’m an older player, and I know I can’t necessarily game in and game out put out the effort. There are times where I really know I can do something special, and it is playoff time. That’s when it counts.”

However, Russell is not the only player maximizing his potential at this point of the year. Striker Álvaro Saborío had a high-profile first leg of the series in which he scored twice, including an inventive back-heel goal that earned rave reviews. Javier Morales assisted on both of those goals and showed sparks of his pre-injury self. And defender Tony Beltran received a lot of buzz for his goal line header saving a goal, and perhaps the series, in the second leg. It was his first game back from a six-week injury layoff.

As RSL closed out the Sounders on Wednesday at CenturyLink Field, they also received some important contributions late in the match when it appeared that the Sounders had all of the momentum and were on their way to that crucial third goal to equalize that series. Kreis inserted veteran Ned Grabavoy, newly acquired Yordany Álvarez and 17-year old Luis Gil. Individually and collectively, the trio made a difference.

“I thought all three of those guys did a very nice job for us, lifted the effort level out there, and made some critical plays when it counted,” said Kreis. “Ned’s a guy that we know shows up for us big time in these situations. He did it for us in 2009. And he’s made major contributions as we’ve seen. His goal [late in the first leg to give RSL the 3-0 advantage] is the one that’s sent us into the next round. And last night was no different. He came on and made some real energetic plays."