Jason Kreis posted up against a concrete wall somewhere underneath the StubHub Center two weeks ago and absorbed the same questions he’d absorbed for years.
Suddenly facing elimination after a lackluster performance in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinal against the L.A. Galaxy, the Real Salt Lake boss cordially, yet succinctly addressed the subject wrought over for so long.
Can RSL score the big goal?
Can RSL win the big game at home?
Can RSL, the second-best team in the Western Conference in 2013, a team that was a few points away from winning the MLS Supporters’ Shield, rebound?
“I have no thoughts about it,” Kreis said at the time. “I’m not going to talk about it. Zero — the end.”
What a difference two weeks, two matches and 210-plus minutes of soccer can make.
Up against the ropes again, RSL found its footing and punched back. It KO’d the Galaxy 2-0 in the second leg of the Western Conference semifinal on Nov. 7 and put on a masterful offensive display in leg one of the conference final last Sunday in its 4-2 win over Portland.
So, what happened?
“I don’t know if there is ever going to be an ability to put a finger on why that is,” Kreis said this week. “It’s good to not really talk about it too much, but for me, watching these last two games, I just thought, ‘Welcome back, Real Salt Lake.’”
It’s certainly been a breath of fresh air to Kreis, the players, the fan base and the front office. Just in the nick of time, RSL has apparently rediscovered its scintillating summer form, when it punished defenses and scored at will.
And at the most important time of the year.
“This team has the resiliency that the 2009 team had,” said RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey. “It’s super talented, it’s deep and it’s a good team that way. I’m very happy about the construction of the group; so many times this year we’ve had guys go down and we’ve had guys step up.”
Sebastian Velasquez is playing the best soccer of his short professional career, rookie Devon Sandoval scored in his first playoff start against the Timbers and defender Chris Schuler — with two immensely timed goals in back-to-back outings — is looking every bit the part of what RSL envisioned him being.
“I think that we, as a coaching staff, had a very clear understanding of one thing: When our team is fully committed to the effort, they’re very, very good and succeed way more often than not,” Kreis said. “When they’re not, they’re not special and they tend to fail way, way more than they succeed.”
As the seven-month grind that is the MLS season began to whittle away, the goals and pizzazz of the RSL offense did, too. Matches were tighter as teams jockeyed for playoff spots. And international call-ups handicapped the club, as it did so many teams in MLS this season.
In September and October combined, RSL went 2-2-2 in league play and scored four goals. Following its 2-1 regular-season-ending win over Chivas USA on Oct. 25, RSL fell flat against L.A. in its 2013 playoff debut.
It was then that the light started to flicker for veteran defender Lovel Palmer.
“It’s a choice you have to make,” he said. “Do you want your season to be over on the 23rd of October, or you want to go to December 7th? You want to win, you want to be in the final game, so you pull out all the stops.”
RSL did. It fought back and is one haymaker away from reaching the MLS Cup final.
“When we want to be,” Kreis said, “we’re a pretty damn good team.”
RSL at Portland
O Nov. 24, 7 p.m.
TV • ESPN
RSL’s recent playoff history
• 1-0 loss at L.A.
• 2-0 win over L.A.
• 4-2 win over Portland
• 0-0 draw at Seattle
• 1-0 loss vs. Seattle
• 3-0 win vs. Seattle
• 2-0 loss at Seattle
• 3-1 loss at L.A.
• 2-1 loss at FC Dallas
• 1-1 draw at home