Real Salt Lake captain Albert Rusnak returns for Western Conference Final: "I feel perfect"

While his team has embarked on the biggest Cinderella run of the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs, Real Salt Lake captain Albert Rusnak has watched from afar.

The 27-year-old received a positive COVID-19 diagnosis just before the playoffs began, leaving him sidelined for RSL's upset triumphs over both the Seattle Sounders and Sporting Kansas City. Now fully recovered, Rusnak is eager to return as RSL seek an MLS Cup appearance when facing the Portland Timbers in a Western Conference Final clash at Providence Park on Saturday (6:30 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes).

"I feel perfect," Rusnak told reporters on Thursday. "I feel like I had a week holiday or something. It's not like I was injured, there isn't a muscle or a certain part of my body to be careful about. I had two sessions so far, I feel perfect physically."

Rusnak said he received his first negative test on Sunday, the day of RSL's dramatic victory over Sporting KC at Children's Mercy Park that was delivered by Bobby Wood's stoppage-time winner. He started running again that day, and with those two training sessions under his belt, Rusnak feels his fitness is in a good place ahead of Saturday's matchup.

The potential impact of Rusnak's return on RSL's attack shouldn't be overlooked. The Slovakian midfielder was the club's most dynamic player this season along with Damir Kreilach, racking up 11 goals and 11 assists while starting all 34 games and playing 3,045 minutes.

"Albert's a very good player, he's quality on the ball. When he's able to get on the ball, he's able to create opportunities for all of us," forward Rubio Rubin said. "Obviously he's a key part, we missed him and we're just happy he's back and we're looking forward to having him back on the field with us."

With Rusnak back in the fold, RSL are closer to full strength as they look to continue a remarkable run that's seen them vanquish two of the West's top three seeds away from Rio Tinto Stadium.

To keep it going, Rusnak and defender Andrew Brody both said the No. 7 seed's formula for success remains much the same.

"I feel like the playoff games have a little something special to it," Rusnak said. "It's a one-off game so I feel like the pressure is mainly on the home team. They've got the crowd behind them, the home team is most of the time the favorite to win, but we've learned that means nothing. We go into Portland with a game plan and with the same mentality of the last two games."

It starts at the back, where Brody has helped anchor a defense that's conceded just one goal in the playoffs – a first-half penalty kick in Kansas City that was converted by Johnny Russell. RSL haven't conceded from open play, shutting out Seattle in the 0-0 Round One draw that ended with a penalty-kick shootout victory.

"I think it's defensive mentality first," Brody said. "We know that if we can keep a clean sheet at the back, not take any unnecessary risks back there, then we put ourselves with a chance to win the game. I think it's that us against the world mentality when we're on the road, there's nothing to lose. The pressure's not on us. So, we just go out there and do what we can do, work hard for one another and just have fun with it."