Real Salt Lake embrace playoff underdog role at SKC: "There's nothing to lose"

Being an underdog in the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs means the odds are stacked against you, and Real Salt Lake are fully embracing that mantra as they enter their Western Conference Semifinal at Sporting Kansas City on Sunday (3 pm ET | ABC, ESPN Deportes).

RSL qualified for the playoffs as the No. 7 seed after a stunning Decision Day winner from Damir Kreilach against SKC deep into second-half stoppage time. They were widely written off in their Round One matchup at Seattle, too, only to take the contest to extra time and win in penalty kicks.

There's a sense of freedom that comes with knowing the outside world doesn't expect you to win, something defender Justen Glad freely acknowledged during his Friday video call.

"At this point it's house money, you know?" Glad said. "We really can't do any wrong right now. If we lose, everyone expected us to not even make playoffs. If we win, it's an amazing story. Everyone's playing with no fear because there's nothing to lose. We've already proved a lot of people wrong and we're just hoping to prove them all the way wrong, that we can do it, we can get a Cup."

Should RSL win and advance to face No. 4-seeded Portland Timbers, they'd again travel for the Western Conference Final. They're the only remaining postseason team that can't host MLS Cup on Dec. 11.

"I think there's a huge amount of belief in this group," Glad said. "No one had us winning that game, so to go out and win that game [in Seattle] in that fashion with just our fans and the guys in that locker room, I think is massive for our group. The belief is there, the mentality's there, so we're going to keep the momentum going and ride it as long as we can."

To reach this point, RSL beat Seattle without star midfielder Albert Rusnak after he tested positive for COVID-19. The captain's due to again miss out vs. SKC, having posted 11g/11a during the regular season.

That could place extra pressure on Damir Kreilach to perform, but the Croatian attacker doesn't view the challenge through a personal lens. Rather, he feels it's about everyone doing their job at peak levels.

"The positive mentality, the winning mentality is inside of us, so we just keep moving," Kreilach said. "It doesn't matter what seed we are, the most important thing is we believe. I know everyone believes, but I would point to the last two games we played, the one against KC the way we got into the playoffs and the game in Seattle. It says a lot about this team."

With one Western Conference heavyweight eliminated and another on the docket, it's a mentality that RSL hope to ride as far as it'll take them.

Getting a result at Children's Mercy Park is among the toughest tasks for a road team in MLS, especially in the playoffs. But RSL interim head coach Pablo Mastroeni knows it can be done, as they showed with that Decision Day victory a few weeks ago.

"I think the group has really taken on this persona of 'Why not us?'" Mastroeni said. "We were picked to finish bottom of the West, bottom of the league at the beginning of the season. I think initially you surprise yourself as the season goes on but at some point you get to this realization that you can compete with the best teams in this league and the difference is showing up on the day and having the right mentality, sticking to the game plan and most important, as a group, believing in each other, believing in yourself.

"And I think that's the mentality that we're bringing to Kansas City," he added. "I think they're a fantastic team, great individual players, a great coach, they've been a fantastic club for many years. I think it will be a difficult task but one that we've seen before and I think having been there a few weeks ago will bring a sense of inner-confidence that if we stick to our game plan we can put up a great fight against a great team."