They did it again.
Real Salt Lake’s unlikely Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs run rolls on, as the Claret-and-Cobalt bagged a dramatic, but eminently deserved, 2-1 comeback win over Sporting Kansas City at Children’s Mercy Park. Next stop: Portland, where they will visit the Timbers on Dec. 4 to determine who represents the Western Conference at MLS Cup 2021.
Here are three thoughts on Sunday’s upset in Kansas City.
A favorite phrase of former head coach Jason Kreis, “fortune favors the bold” was at one time a core mantra at RSL, back during their early-2010s heyday. That mindset might be making a comeback this year, because basically nobody around MLS expected anything from this Salt Lake side, yet they’re looking comfortable and effective as postseason protagonists.
The Utah club are in a sort of holding pattern as the search for a new owner continues. Partly as a side effect of that, they’re perceived as short on match-winning talent. They’re currently led by an interim head coach because Pablo Mastroeni’s predecessor Freddy Juarez, unsure of his future prospects at RSL, left in midseason to take an assistant’s job with the Seattle Sounders.
They pulled off a minor miracle just to qualify for the playoffs, winning at SKC on Decision Day via an injury-time goal after losing badly at home to the Timbers in their penultimate regular-season match. Albert Rusnak, their playmaker and perhaps most skilled player overall, has missed both postseason games due to a positive COVID-19 test.
Yet here they are, one of the last two standing out West. First they survived, hanging on to a clean sheet for dear life in Round One in Seattle long enough to edge a penalty-kick shootout. And in KC they thrived, taking the game to Sporting, absorbing the self-inflicted setback of an early penalty kick gifted to their hosts before Mastroeni outwitted Peter Vermes with second-half adjustments that sparked a late rally.
Young goalkeeper and master troll David Ochoa has made enemies across the land with his gamesmanship. But his unashamed embrace of the heel role is a good example of Salt Lake’s eager willingness to do whatever is necessary, to both talk it and walk it, as Mastroeni reminded his team after their Seattle stunner:
Speaking of Mastroeni, after years of snark and banter about the former US international’s philosophy and style as a coach – or lack thereof – it’s high time we hand him some flowers for his management of this difficult challenge, not only in the playoffs but since Juarez’s sudden departure in August.
First RSL kept their defensive shape, and their composure, under constant waves of pressure in Seattle. Then on Sunday they hardly bunkered at all, getting numbers forward regularly to pile up more possession, better passing accuracy, more shots and shots on goal, and a higher expected goals total than their hosts.
“We felt like the pressure was really going to be on KC, having been here a couple of weeks ago, felt like we were going to have a little bit more time and space to really dictate the game with the ball,” said Mastroeni postgame. “And I think we did a good job of that, took our chances well, and more importantly, never opened ourselves up to counterattacks from a really dangerous counterattacking team.”
Then, with the game and their season hanging in the balance, Mastroeni made the changes that delivered victory, bringing on clever veteran winger Justin Meram, the pacey directness of Anderson Julio and a fresh spearhead in Bobby Wood during the second half. All three of them got on the scoresheet: Julio nodded in the equalizer before Meram centered to Wood for the winner.
“In football, there's game plans that you set out to achieve and it goes your way, and then there's others like in Seattle, where we're playing against a great Seattle team, opponents that at home, that are going to dictate it. And so the important thing, I think, in both games is managing the moments,” said Mastroeni.
“Today we got behind it a little bit with that PK, but never lost our discipline, stayed organized. And the guys that came in did a fantastic job of really changing the momentum and really being on the front foot and really attacking the goal.”
He’s making a strong case for dropping that interim tag come winter, and he deserves praise for his evolution as a coach since his durable but dour Colorado Rapids teams of old.
RSL voices will point out the portentous power of Salt Lake taking this victory in the same stadium where they lost MLS Cup 2013 in such heartbreaking fashion. And that observation also draws attention to how difficult the postseason has been for Sporting ever since that triumph of theirs on a frigid afternoon eight years ago.
While they’ve been nearly ever-present in the playoffs under Vermes, SKC have only reached the conference final stage once since then, suffering one gut-punch setback after another, many of them in the early rounds and/or on home soil.
They looked like an elite MLS contender for long stretches this year, but their ideas, their mentality, their very identity deserted them against RSL, leaving them bitterly frustrated by the manner of this painful end. Remember, Seattle and top-seeded Colorado losing had seemed to open the door for them to finally return to the MLS Cup Final.
“We had a massive opportunity today. We’ve let ourselves down, we didn’t play anywhere near the way that we’ve been playing all season," said captain Johnny Russell postgame. "That wasn’t even a shade of us today. Sat back too much, gave them way too much respect, gave them way too much of the ball."
“We looked like a team that didn’t want to lose rather than a team that wanted to go and win,” added the Scot. “We got the goal in the first half and that’s probably subconsciously in our head a little bit, trying to defend a lead where we showed in the first half, time and time again, that we are creating chances, we’re nicking the ball away and hitting them on the break. And in the second half we just completely stopped that. We just camped in and invited so much pressure on. Which is the most disappointing thing – that’s not us, we’re a high-pressing team, we keep the ball well. We didn’t do any of that today.”
They'll replay this one in their heads more than a few times this winter.