Kragthorpe: RSL finishes well, but there's more to be done
After some unnecessary agonizing in the final 15 minutes Wednesday night at Rio Tinto Stadium, Real Salt Lake got this ending right.
But now that RSL has come this far, there's much more to do. Real improved its playoff position with a 2-1 victory over Chivas USA as Alvaro Saborio and Joao Plata scored goals early in the second half.
So ended RSL's highly successful regular season. Is that possible? After only eight months?
It's true, and RSL (16-10-8) hopes to keep playing for another six weeks, beginning with the Western Conference semifinals in early November.
As for this weekend, Real can wait, watch and hope for favorable results in other games, with the potential for winning the Supporters' Shield for the best regular-season record in Major League Soccer. After an offseason of personnel turnover, being in such a position is "nothing short of remarkable," said coach Jason Kreis.
"A lot of the talk around town was that we were in a rebuilding year," said veteran defender Nat Borchers.
Well, that was fairly accurate. Having overachieved to this point, RSL needs to follow through. This is a postseason-driven sport, in the end.
Of the team's five previous playoff appearances, only two endings could be considered acceptable: the 2009 MLS Cup championship, obviously, and a loss to a more talented Los Angeles team in the 2011 West finals.
Otherwise, RSL has exited the playoffs feeling unfulfilled, and that was especially true last season, when the team went scoreless in its last five games. Such failure resulted in the payroll-slashing moves that were necessary because of the MLS salary cap, amid a search for more offense.
That remains an issue. Nick Rimando will keep RSL in every playoff game with his outstanding work in goal, but his teammates have to put the ball in the net.
Prior to Wednesday, Real had not scored more than one goal in a game since late August, including the disappointing 1-0 home loss to D.C. United in the U.S. Open Cup final in early October. That cost RSL a trophy, making the Supporters' Shield or even better, another MLS Cup title more important to this team.
So the two-goal breakthrough against Chivas was a good sign, even if the first score came via Saborio's penalty kick early in the second half. Plata followed three minutes later with a left-footed blast from the top of the box. RSL secured at least a No. 2 playoff seed, after Chivas' Julio Morales scored a cheap goal in the 77th minute that made the home team earn the victory.
Kreis was not particularly happy with the first half or the last 15 minutes of the game, but those 30 minutes in between were sufficiently encouraging. "The whole team decided to pick themselves up in the second half," Kreis said. "We probably should have scored three at least, maybe four."
Maybe there's consolation in saving those would-be goals for November, and having to hang on at the end was good experience. "This wasn't our best game, but â¦ sometimes in the playoffs, that's how it's going to be," Borchers said. "We're going to have to grind out results."
Meanwhile, RSL is asking for help during a weekend when Kreis plans some intense practices for his own team, but also intends to watch "every minute of every game" that affects RSL.
If last-place Chivas beats or ties Portland, RSL will overtake the Timbers for the West's No. 1 seed. And if New York loses to Chicago and Sporting Kansas City loses or ties against Philadelphia, Real will claim the Supporters' Shield and home-field advantage through the MLS Cup final Dec. 7.