How did RSL get here? Not many expected a top seed
Did Jason Kreis see Real Salt Lake sitting for how long, who knows? in first place on the night of Oct. 23?
"Absolutely not," said the RSL head coach Wednesday night. "I don't think we should belabor the point, I don't think we should skirt around it. If at the beginning of the season you told me we would barely slip into the playoffs I would have said I'll take it. Absolutely I'll take it. Give it to me and I'll take it, we'll have a chance in the playoffs."
Regardless of how the postseason plays out, it was a successful regular season for RSL.
After salary cap constrictions forced the front office to move championship pieces such as Jamison Olave, Fabian Espindola and Will Johnson, RSL brought in several new faces. Robbie Findley came back to help bolster the attack along with newcomers Joao Plata and Olmes Garcia and rookie draft pick Devon Sandoval.
Promising youngster Luis Gil was given a prominent role in Kreis' midfield, while Sebastian Velasquez and Yordany Alvarez have proven valuable over the course of the seven-month season.
The backline went through a revolving door due to injuries to centerbacks, but Nat Borchers, Chris Schuler, rookie Carlos Salcedo, Kwame Watson-Siriboe, Brandon McDonald and even Aaron Maund, helped steer RSL to a 56-point season.
"To be where we are I think a huge amount of respect needs to go to the players and the efforts that they put forth and the team as a whole, coaching staff included, the assistant coaches, everybody that's worked so hard to get this group in the right place, to have us all on the same page," Kreis said. "To pick up the points necessary to put ourselves in a position with a chance for all this stuff is nothing short of remarkable."
"It is something special," Findley added. "It goes from the fans all the way up to the front office. This doesn't come around very often and you don't get it a lot on other teams. There's definitely something special that we have, and I'm grateful to be part of it."
Now comes the hard part.
Can RSL translate what is now somewhat of an unexpected regular-season of success to the postseason?
Ned Grabavoy said the team "dried up" at the tail end of last year RSL went scoreless in its last five competitions and the way the offense slowed a bit down the stretch this season only places further importance on getting goals.
"Still think we can have some more aggressive decisions by individual players because these guys are talented, unbelievably talented," Kreis said. "If they decide that they're going to be the guy that's going to take that opportunity, take the responsibility then they'll find themselves on the end of some good plays I guarantee it."
Veteran defender Lovel Palmer, who had impressed over the last few weeks, was pulled from the match in the 9th minute Wednesday against Chivas USA due to a left hamstring injury. Palmer had recently overtaken starting-XI staple Tony Beltran, who Kreis said had "slipped a little bit" in form as of late.
Beltran replaced Palmer along the backline and Kreis addressed the situation after the 2-1 win.
"I think that Tony had gone through a spell where he didn't really look like himself," Kreis said. "I thought he needed a break and you couple that with the fact that Lovel Palmer has been playing very, very well for quite a few weeks and it felt like the right move. But it doesn't take anything away from Tony Beltran. It's a credit to Lovel Palmer and the work that he does. It's a credit to the team philosophy that when changes need to be made that we need to all be willing to make sacrifices and understand that sometimes it's not always going to be 'my moment.' But now, obviously Tony comes in and I thought he was solid. Unfortunately, he got caught out on the goal but if you put that one play to the side he was very solid for us. That's not easy to do, to come off the bench and be cold and be in that mindset where you've kind of been looked over for two matches."
Forward Joao Plata left the match in the 62nd minute with a hamstring injury as well, replaced by Findley. In the locker room after the match, Plata walked around without a noticable limp.
Javier Morales told Kreis Tuesday it wasn't realistic that he could go 90 minutes while he's working his way back from a left-ankle sprain suffered in training on Oct. 5. Kreis said Morales was on limited minutes entering the Chivas match, but once Morales was subbed on, he provided an immediate spark to an RSL side that Kreis said didn't have the appropriate energy in the first half.
"The last 10 minutes, I started to get tired and started to feel [some pain] a little bit again," Morales said, "but I have to keep working, you know, I have 10 more days to the next game, so I will be OK."