SEATTLE – Real Salt Lake pulled off the most stunning result in Round One of the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs, notching a massive road upset over the No. 2 seed Seattle Sounders with a 6-5 victory in penalty kicks after the match finished 0-0 through 120 minutes.
With the win, RSL became the only road team to progress out of Round One victorious, topping a Sounders team many pegged as one of the favorites to lift MLS Cup on Dec. 11.
There are numerous storylines from a game that featured zero goals, but here are three takeaways as RSL advance to a Western Conference Semifinal matchup against Sporting Kansas City and the Sounders head into a shockingly early offseason.
There's no question as to who the star of the show was on Tuesday, whether you loved him or hated him.
RSL goalkeeper David Ochoa drew the ire of the Seattle crowd for a list of antics that grew increasingly long throughout the night. All 34,000 fans in attendance booed him at an almost constant rate for all 120 minutes and more, whether it was for taking too long on goal kicks, milking his time on the ground after collisions, the second-half yellow card that saw him charge upfield to argue with the referee, or his trash talk to opposing players and the home supporters.
The more nuts it drove the Lumen Field crowd, the more Ochoa seemed to thrive on it. After the match, which saw him make a crucial save on Seattle’s Kelyn Rowe in the decisive shootout, he made no secret of relishing the antagonist role.
“I enjoy being the villain,” Ochoa said. “I love when people are talking smack to me, you know, I feel like it makes me play better. And today I tried playing the villain a little bit and make sure that Seattle wasn't getting in a rhythm. With that, I had to slow time a little bit but I also got a yellow card. After the yellow card, I kind of was a little more smarter, just in case I got the red card. But yeah, like, like I told you, I enjoy being the villain. And I don't think I'll ever stop.”
This isn’t new territory for Ochoa. He was at the center of more controversy earlier this season after punting a ball into the supporters’ section at Allianz Field after a win over Minnesota United, prompting a war of words with Loons head coach Adrian Heath.
Whatever you think of the trolling, the 20-year-old goalkeeper is now one of the foremost characters in this year’s playoffs for an RSL team that must feel that there’s no limit to how far their underdog run can go.
Plenty will be made about how Real Salt Lake ended regulation and extra time without a single shot at goal. For anyone trying to diminish his team’s accomplishment because of that, RSL interim coach Pablo Mastroeni had a simple message.
“The onus is on the home team to put on a show,” Mastroeni said at his postgame press conference. “The onus is on us to find a way to win."
You can call it negative soccer, but in the postseason, the objective is to advance by whatever means necessary. Real Salt Lake got out-shot 21-0, out-possessed 62%-38% and took one corner kick to Seattle’s 15. In the end, none of that matters. If you can’t put the ball in the net, you leave yourself susceptible to an outcome like Tuesday’s.
“Listen, at the end of the day, playoffs are a different beast,” Mastroeni said. “And, and so again, it wasn't the game plan obviously to not be able to muster good quality scoring opportunities.
“But I think you have the regular season to learn from decisions and choices that you make as a group throughout. And again, the most important thing for us going into all these games, knowing that we're going to have every game on the road, is to make sure defensively we're solid. So again, the onus is on the home team to put on a show. The onus is on us to find a way to win.”
It’s about as frustrating as it gets for the Sounders, who simply aren’t used to being in this position.
This is a club that's grown accustomed to thriving in the postseason, making four out of the last five MLS Cup finals and winning two (2016, 2019). They’ve had playoff defeats before, but hadn’t been bounced without advancing from the first round since 2011.
The 2021 season, for a lengthy portion of it, also felt like one that could produce another lengthy postseason run. Seattle started the season unbeaten for a league-record 13 straight games and were at or near the top of the Western Conference for almost the entire campaign.
“I’m upset because I think we had a really good squad this year,” goalkeeper Stefan Frei said postgame. “You know, every year there’s change and careers don’t last forever too, so when you know have a good squad then you want to achieve something with that squad. So that’s the first thing that kind of sticks out to me."
Seattle still have as good a core as anybody in MLS, but that doesn’t mean the upcoming offseason will come without questions. Designated Player Nicolas Lodeiro barely played at all this year due to a recurring knee injury. Will he be able to recover and return at full capacity next season at age 33? How much roster turnover will there be elsewhere with several longtime cogs at or above 30?
All of that will make for an interesting few months for the Rave Green as they regroup for 2022 and with Concacaf Champions League obligations not far off in the distance.
“I think this last game was a summary of our season,” said midfielder Cristian Roldan. “You start off hot and continue hot, you go from first to second, second to first. You’re on top of them, we’re on top of the West and then you see a decline the last six to seven games, which was like our PKs, right? So today was a summary of our season. And it’s really unfortunate. Like Stef said, we have a really good team. I think injuries got the best of us, and we were lacking that final product in the last six to seven games.
“It’s just bitter the way it ended."