Deja vu? Real Salt Lake aim to produce another dream playoff run

1009 RSL Clinch

For the second year in a row, another Decision Day brought out another clutch performance from Real Salt Lake, who – just like in 2021 – are the Western Conference’s seventh-seeded and final qualifier for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, thanks to Sunday’s impressive 3-1 thumping of the Portland Timbers.

And just like last year, when they shocked the Seattle Sounders and Sporting Kansas City (and really, the rest of the league, too) on their run to the Western Conference Final, Pablo Mastroeni and his underdog collective will carry quiet confidence into the postseason, which for them begins with a national-network-televised visit to second-seeded Austin FC next Sunday (3 pm ET | ABC, ESPN Deportes).

“Austin, I think it's a great opportunity for us,” said an elated Mastroeni after the big win at America First Field. “The feeling in that locker room is a similar feeling that we had last year. And when you have a team that has a little bit of history in recent history in the playoffs, going away from home, we know it's going to be a difficult match, but I think we're peaking at the right time.

“I like the matchup,” he added of ATX, who beat Salt Lake 3-0 at Q2 Stadium in September and lost 2-1 in Utah in May.

While there’s plenty of that same old heart and hustle in this season’s RSL, that symmetry belies the extent of the changes that have swept across the club over the past 12 months.

Much of the magic of last year’s run originated from the awkward limbo that enveloped Salt Lake as the search for a buyer to replace owner Dell Loy Hansen dragged on for months. Head coach Freddy Juarez had pulled up stakes for an assistant job with Seattle during that time, leaving Mastroeni as the interim boss. They didn’t make the playoffs until injury time of their last-day, last-gasp 1-0 win at SKC via Damir Kreilach, and also had to ride some inspired goalkeeping from David Ochoa last autumn.

Today RSL are riding a wave of optimism brought on by new owners David Blitzer and Ryan Smith, who have overhauled the game-day experience and inspired the fanbase, resulting in a steady stream of big crowds and broken attendance records. Ochoa is gone now, as is former Designated Player Albert Rusnak. More than half of RSL’s Decision Day starting XI changed from ‘21 to ‘22.

The team is still the star in Salt Lake; MLS Players Association salary documents show them still among the lowest roster spenders in MLS. Yet there’s a maturity, a different sort of belief about the project these days – even with the costly, near-season-long absence of the veteran talisman Kreilach due to injury, even with a five-game winless streak in September and October that put their playoff dreams in jeopardy.

“We had to go away to get the win to go into playoffs last year, and we did it in the last 15 seconds. I think this year, from the get-go we were on the front foot and it felt like we controlled our destiny, especially when we were up 2-0,” said Mastroeni.

“But I think the one thing that we preach in the locker room is team, and knowing that we're not going to ever win a game with one guy. We can't rely on one guy; we can't rely on four or five. It really takes 11 guys that are on the field.”

As with many of the best RSL teams of the past, the current group contains a blend of homegrowns, veteran projects and under-the-radar signings from overseas. Witness Sunday’s scorers: Jefferson Savarino, Rubio Rubin and Bode Hidalgo, the latter a 20-year-old homegrown player who had never scored an MLS goal and still has just 85 career MLS minutes to his name. Their leading finisher is Sergio Cordova, with a modest nine league goals; Justin Meram tops the assists list with seven.

Yet they’ll be a tricky out for an Austin side making their inaugural trip to the playoffs.

“We all had a pretty good feeling going into this game,” said goalkeeper Zac MacMath. “I thought we controlled the game very well. So it was I would say it was a comfortable win, which is nice, considering how we did it last year.

“But we deserve to be in the playoffs. We were above the playoff line most of the year. We struggled at times, but I thought we were a playoff team all year long and we battled against some of the best teams in the league all year long. So I think it's a huge credit to Pablo and everyone in the backroom, and the players who worked very hard to get where we are today.”

And there was satisfying symmetry in RSL getting there by beating the same Timbers who ended their Cinderella run in ‘21, last year’s West champions looking tired and uninspired with their own postseason hopes on the line, bereft of midfield linchpin Eryk Williamson due to a mystifying coach’s decision by Gio Savarese, star attacker Sebastian Blanco limited to 16 anonymous minutes off the bench.

Afterwards Mastroeni explained how he set his team up to exploit the spaces in Portland’s wingback system and thrive in transition against an adversary that usually does the same thing. And his own increasing sophistication on the psychological side of his trade, finding the right balance in his messaging and motivation for this massive occasion.

“Emotionally, I think that there's always a balance to be struck between being too animated before the game and thinking it's all heart,” said Mastroeni. “The way I think about it is, too much heart takes away from the brain. Too much brain is a lifeless performance. We really piggybacked the performance that we had in LA [last week], which I thought was fantastic and unfortunate not to come away with something, or with the three points there. And it just carried over this week, and I think it was evident on the field today.

“It’s got to be a blend of tactics and emotion, and I don't think I got it right – think the players got it right.”