On another level, though, it's a clash between a big market team with a high-profile coach and a large payroll and a team that reached the game by “playing the kids” and growing into a playoff team.
“We’re set up very differently than a lot of teams. We’re set up differently than the team we’re playing,” RSL coach Mike Petke said. “I take pride in our young guys, especially with the ups and downs we have had. We still reached our initial goal, which is to get in the playoffs.”
Seven players from the RSL academy have grown into contributors on this year’s team. Another earned his spot by playing for the USL affiliate Real Salt Lake Monarchs.
RSL added even more youth to that with Designated Player signings Albert Rusnak (24 years old) and 21-year-old Jefferson Savarino and put them together alongside MLS career record holders Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando.
“It takes time to become an elite team,” Beckerman said. “We all know it’s an opportunity right now. It’s a special one being in the playoffs. We need to improve. We need to get better, but that doesn’t mean we can’t win while we do that.”
Success can be a process. Winning consistently is tough. There are always growing pains along the way, but that process is starting to look familiar, and remind some of RSL's 2009 MLS Cup run.
“I was looking at the away record in 2009 and we had two away wins, so we’re on pace with that,” Beckerman joked. Salt Lake were actually 3-11-3 on the road in 2018.
LAFC were expected to be good from day one. RSL have been working through their ups and downs waiting for everything to click or mature or whatever that next step has been.
Getting their youth game experience matters, which is why RSL have learned to savor its core of young, energetic athletes and get them as much time as possible on the field. It’s no different for the playoffs. Telling them about the playoffs won’t cut it.
“They have to experience that for the first time if they haven’t already,” Petke said. “All our players have been in big games in their lives.”
LAFC’s Carlos Vela played in the World Cup this summer and even played a key role in Mexico’s upset over Germany. A handful of RSL’s youngsters played in the U-20 World Cup a year ago and Rusnak and Savarino have broken into their senior national teams. It’s not quite the same thing, but they believe they make up for experience with effort.
“They don’t know how big the situation is,” Beckerman said. “Our young guys are just going to go out and play their hardest like they have all season.”
Maybe a little youthful exuberance will be a good thing under the bright lights on a big stage.