Audi MLS Cup Playoffs games need heroes, sure. But there’s also plenty of room for villains, a role that Real Salt Lake goalkeeper David Ochoa embraces with open arms.
Ochoa was a constant thorn in the Seattle Sounders’ side during Tuesday night’s Western Conference Round One match, doing just enough to throw the No. 2 seed off their game and spark a 6-5 shootout victory after a 0-0 draw persisted through extra time.
The 20-year-old homegrown walked a fine line between purposeful antagonism and reckless hostility, relishing being the bad guy at Lumen Field. He wasn't exactly out to make friends.
“I enjoy being the villain, I love when people are talking smack to me,” Ochoa said postgame. “I feel like it makes me play better. Today, I tried playing the villain a little bit and making sure that Seattle wasn't getting in a rhythm.
“With that, I had to slow time a little and with that I also got a yellow card. But after the yellow card I was a little smarter just in case I didn't get the red card. But I enjoy being the villain and I don't think I'll ever stop.”
Ochoa showcased his goalkeeping ability, too. His big moment came in the sixth round of PKs, diving to his right to deny Seattle’s Kelyn Rowe. That allowed RSL’s Justen Glad to plant his own spot-kick, giving the No. 7 seed a road win where they were outshot 21-0 across 120 minutes. Yes, zero shots from the Claret & Cobalt.
Ochoa, as he noted, got a yellow card in the 50th minute for storming upfield to protest what he deemed a missed foul call that ended with a skied outside-of-the-boot effort from Jordan Morris. And he flirted with timewasting that tested the patience of head referee Joseph Dickerson, arguably exaggerated an injury or two, then tried about every intimidation tactic in the book during PKs.
Interim manager Pablo Mastroeni said it’s all part of what makes Ochoa an exciting prospect.
“For me, the most important thing is that players are playing with a lot of confidence,” Mastroeni said. “Everyone has their own way of expressing that. I think David, from the start of the game, I knew he was going to be lights out because I think when he takes on that persona he's dialed in and that's his way of staying present, staying focused and coming up with big plays.”
HIGHLIGHTS: Seattle Sounders FC vs. Real Salt Lake | November 23, 2021
Ochoa’s developed a track record for such escapades, too, including a Week 2 altercation that generated national storylines. After their season-opening 2-1 win at Minnesota United, way back in April, he punted the ball into the Wonderwall, the Loons’ supporters section, sparking a post-match fracas. MNUFC center back Michael Boxall even called him a “bit of a clown.”
Ochoa's eventful year also included him switching his international allegiance to Mexico after representing the United States at Concacaf Olympic Qualifying ahead of the Tokyo 2020 games. He explained that decision in a moving Players Tribune story.
Clearly not afraid of rubbing people the wrong way, Ochoa also forgot Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer’s full name in his postgame remarks Tuesday. Perhaps there’s nothing to it or it’s another data point in Ochoa’s growing reputation.
“We had no shots and [Mastroeni] said something about Brian, whatever his last name is, their manager, say something that their players had a better mentality,” Ochoa said. “We think that there's no better mentally than having zero shots on goal and still winning the game. I think that's the biggest mentality that there is. I even told the boys at halftime, if they're not going to take advantage of their opportunities, we're going to take advantage.”
Now, Ochoa and RSL head to Sporting Kansas City on Sunday for a Western Conference Semifinal (3 pm ET | ABC, ESPN Deportes). They beat the No. 3 seed 1-0 on Decision Day behind a stoppage-time winner from Damir Kreilach, setting up a rematch three weeks later.
Maybe we’ll see Ochoa trying to put forwards Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell off their games. That's probably more of an inevitability, actually.
“My mentality going into the game was just to slow down the game, not let Seattle get into a rhythm," Ochoa said. "I think I did that pretty well today, so I'm glad to move on.”