HERRIMAN, Utah – Real Salt Lake finished the regular season with two consecutive wins, part of a 3-2-1 run down the stretch. They allowed the third-fewest goals in Major League Soccer and beat all four of the Eastern Conference’s top seeds in 2019.
But none of that has created as much buzz as some of the other Western Conference playoff teams have around them right now. And that may just be how RSL likes it.
“We like flying underneath the radar,” goalkeeper Nick Rimando said. “We’re not the highlight team, but we handle our business under cover. That being said, there’s no reason we can’t make it to MLS Cup.”
The Seattle Sounders were the only other team to close out the regular season with consecutive wins, and while RSL may not have been spectacular all year, they were consistent, and that has prompted sky-high confidence for a young team with solid veteran leaders who enjoyed limited playoff success a year ago.
“I think everybody is buying in on how we’re playing and the commitment that needs all around the park, and it shows,” Rimando said.
After nerve-jangling conclusions to their previous two regular seasons, RSL didn’t leave their Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoff hopes in the balance heading into Decision Day presented by AT&T. Instead, they used the buildup to prep their postseason mindset.
“The end of the year was preparation for this situation,” Rimando said. “Every game meant something. The points. The value. The last four or five games, we put ourselves in a position to know it’s do or die now. These are the games that mean the most and I think we’re clicking at the right time.”
Part of the lack of buzz is that there isn’t one player to focus on for RSL. In a conference with big names like Carlos Vela, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Diego Valeri and plenty more, the team is still the star in Utah.
“It’s going to be a collective,” head coach Freddy Juarez said. “We feel confident in what our collective defensive shape has been this season. But on the flip side, we have Albert [Rusnak], we have Damir [Kreilach], Sam Johnson, [Jefferson] Savarino, [Joao] Plata and Bofo [Saucedo] can come off the bench if they don’t start. Those are all guys who can make a difference in games and we’ve seen that throughout the season.”
Now under-the-radar RSL will face a Portland Timbers team they lost to twice this season in Round One of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs (Saturday, 10 pm ET | ESPNews, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN4, TVAS in Canada). The same thing happened last year and RSL came away with an unexpected road win over LAFC.
Being higher-ranked and at home gives them a little more to play with than a year ago.
“It’s awesome to get another home game,” Rimando said. “To play in front of our fans and where we’re most comfortable is big for us.”