The Quakes were already out of the Audi MLS Cup Playoff race as they visited Rio Tinto Stadium, where RSL had lost just twice all season. Meanwhile, the hosts could consolidate their hold on one of the Western Conference’s final postseason places with a win, and seemed on course to do so when they dominated the opening stages to take a 1-0 lead.
But just like that messy, fun-loving housemate of yours who used to lure you out on the town the night before an early shift at work, the Quakes threw caution to the wind and Salt Lake couldn’t resist responding in kind.
First Carlos Fierro struck, then Chris Wondolowski. After halftime Cade Cowell conjured that worldie you've probably watched a few times by now, and when Jackson Yueill fired another one home it was 4-1, RSL's desperate last-ditch rally coming too late. A 4-3 final meant points dropped and playoff hopes dinged in a way that had to have been exasperating (albeit highly entertaining to us neutrals) for Pablo Mastroeni, a ferocious defensive midfielder in his day.
“Our shape behind the ball was reckless at times,” the Utahns’ interim boss admitted on Tuesday.
And yet Mastroeni, who showed a philosophical streak during his time in charge of the Colorado Rapids, found an introspective angle on the meltdown as he spoke to reporters ahead of RSL’s enormous home finale on Wednesday night vs. the Portland Timbers, one where a win books postseason soccer (10:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+).
“There's two ways to look at it, you know?” he said. “I think in life and in sports, if you want to win something, you’ve got to go for it. So I'd rather us be that team that go for it and have to dial it down because the other way, I think, is impossible. The other way is to sit back or not believe and get overrun, and then try to find a way to motivate or create belief in the group.
“It's really about problem-solving in real-time, and without good communication, it's extremely difficult,” he added. “My job is to make sure that there’s structure and there's an understanding, and then helping them or giving them the tools.”
An interim coach at a club in transition, a onetime catenaccio merchant now goosing the best he can out of a run-and-gun side, Mastroeni inhabits an unsettled space. His previous coaching claim to fame was the historic stinginess of the 2016 Rapids; now he helms the second-highest-scoring team in the West. His (and many of his players’) longer-term job prospects would appear to hinge on the outcome of his embattled team’s run-in, though no one can really be sure what the next owner will do.
His squad has to win on Wednesday – “for us a tie doesn't mean anything; we are going to go all-in,” promised leading scorer and upstart league MVP candidate Damir Kreilach – considering that their Decision Day visit to No. 1 seed-chasing Sporting Kansas City is a daunting setting in which to pursue all three points. Yet to do so they must maintain proper balance against the transition-savvy Timbers, who are primed to feast on their slackness.
That’s not conjecture: PTFC did exactly that just a few weeks ago, to the tune of a 6-1 beating in the Rose City.
“We will have to find tomorrow a way to win,” said captain Albert Rusnak. “A big thing will be taking care of the ball and not giving it up and losing it in the middle of the field, especially because that can directly lead to one of their strengths, which is the counterattack.”
Still, even with all that, Mastroeni insisted that he won’t park the bus. He sounded unsure that his group could, even if he wanted to.
“We’ve got to adjust a couple of things, and we talked about it today and yesterday, and make sure that we're a little bit more structured behind the ball. I expect the same type of mentality against Portland,” he noted. “Obviously, we're aware that they’re a great counter team. But again, we can't lose our identity in the way we want to get after it for fear of losing games. I think in order to win games, we have to be who we are.”
That last part has long been meaningful at RSL, MLS’ mountain kingdom, based in a so-called “small market” tucked away in relative isolation, prizing their uniqueness dating back to the glory days under Jason Kreis and Garth Lagerwey. The current squad has represented that idea bravely across a tumultuous 2021, yet Wednesday may mark a moment of truth.
The year began with a new phase in the ongoing process of the club’s sale in the wake of Dell Loy Hansen’s controversial utterances both public and private, the fallout from which also included the departure of NWSL sibling side Utah Royals FC and an extended period of limbo for RSL players and staff awaiting a new owner’s arrival.
To make a much longer story short for the present moment, we can safely say that all this complicated the Claret-and-Cobalt’s efforts to keep pace in the competitive West, and played a part in the sudden midseason departure of head coach Freddy Juarez for an assistant’s position with the Seattle Sounders. It also galvanized the locker room, as Rusnak pointed out on Tuesday.
“At this point it's not about training the things you want to do, but it's more about seeing it on the film and going over the small details because they can decide games,” said the Slovakian playmaker. “So I think we're ready tomorrow and I feel like this year, when our back’s up against the wall, we always came back and responded.”
RSL have been written off plenty over the last year or two. This correspondent’s preseason predictions, for example, placed them dead last in the West table, a pick heavily influenced by the constant blare of background noise around the organization lately. But they’ve persevered. They're still in the fight. And now the final phase of that journey hinges on their next 90 minutes.
“We are going to be smart, patient. We are going to wait on our chances to create and score goals,” said Kreilach. “The pressure we have right now, the pressure is a privilege. This is what we earned.”