It was too often assumed this season that Real Salt Lake's placement above the playoff line was precarious.
Their road record was nonexistent; they played more games than some other clubs, thus expected to drop once the matches were even; the Seattle Sounders were climbing; the LA Galaxy and Vancouver Whitecaps were right there, too. Sooner or later, Mike Petke's club was supposed to sink out of the playoffs. Except, with six games left in the season, they haven't. In fact, they've gotten stronger.
RSL aren't in the playoffs yet-- they're in fourth place but sixth in PPG, but trending well. Here are three key moments to their rise.
July 14: Joao Plata returns to form despite loss
RSL may have lost in Minnesota 3-2, but they saw the return of the Joao Plata they had grown accustomed to in his time with the team, the one that had been absent due to injury and lack of form for much of the season.
Prior to scoring twice in 24 minutes against the Loons, Plata had made just four cameos off the bench in the team's previous nine games. He's started all but one of their next eight games, adding three goals and five assists.
Aug. 18: Albert Rusnak's late magic in Houston
RSL's creator-in-chief turned a tough loss into a galvanizing win in just seven stoppage time minutes.
Albert Rusnak scored twice to resurrect RSL in Houston, including tying a record for the latest game-winner in MLS history, sparking their current three-game win streak. In those three games, Rusnak has five goals and an assist.
Even more impressively, this was RSL's third game in eight days in the Houston heat. It would have been easy to fold -- but they didn't. If they navigate their remaining schedule and earn a playoff place, Rusnak's magic in Houston may be the single most pivotal moment of the season.
Aug. 25: Damir Kreilach... the center forward?
Sam Stejskal went into great detail about the move and it's well worth your time.
Since Damir Kreilach has been occupying something resembling a striker's role in the last two matches, RSL has netted 12 goals. Early returns on Petke's decision to move his box-to-box midfielder into a striker-but-not-exactly role have been incredible. It helped the team to a colossal 6-2 win over the Galaxy, dually helping them put another hand around a playoff place and kicking away one of their competitors in the process.
Granted, the defenses they faced aren't exactly league best but six goals in back-to-back matches against any MLS defense is quite a feat, full stop. Spoiler alert: they won't score a touchdown worth of goals regularly. But, as long as the attack stays productive, and "weird" as Matt Doyle affectionately calls it, RSL have a chance.